Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

If I was asked a few short years ago what I thought of Will Smith, I would have said that he is one of the coolest and most charismatic actors in Hollywood. Nowadays, I’m more likely to say that he was cool and charismatic but After Earth ruined him for me. Yeah, I’m willing to stick up for him for lesser works like Hancock, I, Robot and even I Am Legend, but his usual smooth delivery being reduced to a complete drone thanks to M. Night Shyamalan kind of spoiled the fun for me as well as cementing Shyamalan officially as one of the worst directors in my book. Sure, my opinion of Smith picked back up slightly after his surprisingly nice turn in Winter’s Tale but… well, quite frankly, he was the only good thing about that turd of a movie. Then the trailers for this film hit and there was a spark of that old Will Smith on the screen; colour me excited to say the least. So, will this be the great redeemer or just another let-down? This is Focus.

The plot: Nicky (Will Smith) is a seasoned con-man who knows all the tricks of the trade. After putting the kibosh on a con done by amateur thief Jess (Margot Robbie), the two start working together. However, Nicky has always believed that love should never get in the way of a good con and starts to drift away from her, instead working on a con for racing team owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). When Nicky and Jess find each other again, Nicky has to maintain his work ethics and continue with his plans… even though he may not be the only one in on the con.

In all honesty, this might be some of the best casting for Will Smith in his entire career. Even in his worst films, aside from the aforementioned sin against all things existent, he has this uncanny ability to convince the audience to buy into whatever he happens to be selling regardless of whether it’s of actual worth or not (Insert joke about him being executive producer for last year’s disastrous Annie remake here), which is essentially what his entire character revolves around. Will’s style on camera is back with a vengeance, almost as if he’s using all the reserves in his tanks that he didn’t get a chance to utilize in his previous films, and even when his schemes get a little too convoluted at times, he never falters and always manages to deliver his dialogue with that welcoming persona that has made him the icon that he is. This is greatly helped by his pairing with Margot Robbie, who plays off against and occasionally matches Smith’s cockiness beat for beat while also being very convincing as the naïve amateur initially. It doesn’t hurt that they have seriously good romantic chemistry together; during the first act, they stand as one of the most natural on-screen couplings I’ve seen in a very long time. They’re also backed by a damn good supporting cast: Adrian Martinez brings a surprising amount of charm to his character’s crude and highly sexualized sense of humour and does great as Smith’s friend and partner Farhad, B.D. Wong may be wandering dangerously close to the border between character and caricature but his portrayal of the gambler Liyuan added a lot to his core scene, Brennan Brown delivers his character’s extremely dry dialogue with just the right punch to accompany Smith as his right-hand man Horst, and Gerald McRaney as Garigga’s head of security Owens counter-acts Smith’s cool with just plain burning badassitude; it’s great seeing Gerald being put to good use and not in sappy romantic tripe like The Best Of Me.

In all honesty, Smith’s turn here is just that good that he could have probably helped carry the entire film on his own, with minor assistance from the rest of the cast. However, he doesn’t need to because this is a script that deals with one of my favourite subjects and does so remarkably well: Mind games. The explanations put into how Nicky’s schemes work, from the smaller pickpocketings to the bigger cases of larceny, to the detail put into said schemes is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, it may be more than a little convoluted but the pieces just fit together that well that it ultimately doesn’t matter. The best example of this is the scene with Liyuan, which involves events that are so good that I don’t even want to hint at what it involves; rest assured, though, it is amazing to witness unfold. Nicky’s character is shown having the skills needed to pull these feats off nailed and the production follows suit with an extremely slick presentation of these events that show off an almost beautiful clockwork efficiency  to how his team operates. Legendary master of sleight-of-hand Apollo Robbins was brought as a consultant and his expertise wasn’t wasted for a moment as these are very well choreographic and thought-out scenes.

However, as much as I can ignore how overblown quite a few of these grifts can be, this film unfortunately falls into the same trap that an awful lot of films like this get into: Focusing too much on fooling the audience and not the characters. Numerous times in this film, there are scenes that narratively have no reason to be shown except for throwing the audience off and setting up an upcoming twist, even though said scenes can make said twists a little problematic and open up some plot holes in the process. It’s a bit of fridge illogic I’ll admit, as this doesn’t necessarily come across in its entirety while watching it for the most part. In a way, the film itself operates a bit like a magic act or even a playful bit of theatrical pickpocketing: You know that what you’re seeing isn’t as fantastical as it really seems, and in some cases isn’t even real at all, but the presentation by the people on and off-stage make you ignore that and just enjoy the spectacle; in short, what good filmmaking is capable of in the right hands.

This has a very down tempo and mellow soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the events on screen: Lots of lounge numbers and smooth jazz tunes, along with a couple of classic rock tunes to punctuate a few moments. Hell, the music itself ends up playing into the proceedings of one of the scenes and makes it even better (No spoilers on which one though). Major props to Nick Urata for not only his great song selections for the soundtrack, but also for his original contributions as well that only increase the suave and sophisticated atmosphere that permeates this film. Windmills Of My Mind is going to haunt me for a bit after hearing it here, but the song’s that great that I’m happy for it.

All in all, this is a very slick and stylish affair, anchored by Smith and Robbie’s fantastic performances in the lead roles. The supporting cast are fantastic, the writing is witty while still getting some good emotional beats on occasion, the soundtrack is superb and the overall production has the efficacy to mesh it all together to provide a damn good watch. This has officially restored my faith in Will Smith’s abilities as an actor and I eagerly await his portrayal in the film Concussion which will be coming out later this year. I rank it higher than Still Alice, as while Smith doesn’t come close to touching Moore’s outstanding performance in that film, the overall production is more balanced in terms of quality. However, it didn’t sit as well with me as Selma, which connected with me on a more emotional level than this film managed to. For fans of the old Will Smith who want to put those nightmares of Cypher Raige to rest, I definitely recommend checking this one out.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Movie Review: Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of (2015)

Given the rather ill-fated step that this entire blog started on, boy bands now have an added bizarre undercurrent on top of my already rather vocal disdain for them: I may hate them in general, but they are at least partially responsible for me taking my obsessive cinematic habits and turning them into something mildly useful. So, when news reached me that a documentary was coming out based on one of the biggest boy bands of all time, the Backstreet Boys, I felt some weird form of obligation to check it out beyond my compulsions. But, with my mother in tow to provide cultural context when needed as she grew up around the phenomenon, was it worth seeing? Like, at all? This is Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.

The plot: In celebration of their 20th anniversary as a group, the Backstreet Boys (A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell) reunite to record a new album. As they work together on what would eventually become their 2013 album In A World Like This, they reminisce on their career together, from their humble beginnings to their chart-topping success to the present day.

With so many biopics coming out of late, I have noticed a definite trend amongst them: The better ones tend to focus on a single event or theme and put all of its effort into that, rather than trying to overstretch themselves and look at everything concerning the subject. For example, Selma wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it tried to squeeze MLK’s entire life story into a single film, rather than taking the route it did and single out the protest marches to Montgomery. I bring this up because, as you might have guessed by now, this film tries to look at everything involving the Backstreet Boys and their history. Now, admittedly it does end up covering an awful lot of information, but as a result it doesn’t put near enough emphasis on any of it for it to really mean anything. Their manager cheating them and countless other people out of their money; their problems with substances and visits to rehab; them revisiting places from their childhood and delving into some emotional moments; all of these, along with everything else mentioned on screen, are done with such disregard for what’s being shown, that the audience really isn’t given much of a reason to care about it. It treats its material largely like a big check list of all the things they wanted to bring up, never once thinking to focus on any one thing for long enough to give it the attention it needed. This also results in it feeling extremely bloated, making this nearly two hour film even more of a slog to get through.

Of course, what they do end up focusing on isn’t all that great either. One of my biggest gripes I had with One Direction: This Is Us is that, for as much as it desperately tried to convince me that the band wasn’t just one big manufactured cash cow, it never managed it. Well, surprise surprise, the same happens here. Throughout the film, the Boys keep trying to say that while they started out as a mass-marketed boy band, they have since become a legitimate vocal group as if they were the second coming of The Monkees or something. At one point, one of them even compares the band to Pinocchio and how he was manufactured at first and then became a real boy. This is the kind of material that shows up in parodies of band documentaries, not the actual product. What makes this ring especially hollow is the fact that, quite frankly, we can hear how they sound now; they still suck like they did back then. Hell, maybe if they wanted to take this idea more seriously then they wouldn’t have brought in pop music titan Max Martin, who made most of their biggest hits back in the day, to help produce their new album. With that said, there are all of two moments where we get some form of legitimacy: One comes from when Nick confronts Brian about his medical conditions that may make him unable to sing when they start touring again, in front of the rest of the group and their management no less; the other is when Kevin says that he learnt how to ask for a blowjob in German when he was younger and the band was starting to get popular. The former works because it strips away the veneer and shows that things aren’t as perfect as they seem in the rest of the documentary, as they will always be times when bandmates will butt heads about their music; the latter works because it shows a glimpse of genuine humanity and strips away the overly serious tone the group largely takes, as I’m fairly certain that there are a lot of people who will attest that that question would be one of the first things they’d learn in another language. Add to this the fact that all of their past history is given as jumbled as it is, and the innards of this doco aren’t looking good in the slightest.

With all this lack of narrative focus, the filmmakers decided to keep things consistent and pair it up with a lot of literal lack of focus as well. A very large majority of the shots in this film are either pretty badly out-of-focus or just take too long on-screen to actually focus in on what it wants to show. I know that in documentaries, this sort of thing is meant to convey a feeling of realism and rawness to help give the overall production some credibility, but when you have a multi-camera set-up you have no excuse for actually showing us how bad your cameramen are at using their lenses. I highly suspect that one of their cameras is just flat-out broken, considering how many consistently bizarre shots we get where the right-side of the screen looks like it’s been coated in Vaseline. These shots aren’t even during the one-on-one interview segments, where this look could have been passable; in the scene where A.J. is talking with a friend of his at a bowling alley, they are shot through this half-soap opera lens. Even with everyone else going on, the cinematography is seriously distracting; although, to be fair, that might be a good thing.

All in all, this is a horribly put together documentary. The information given is so slapshod that, despite how much it tries to convey and how much the documentary itself tries to be, it fails to deliver any of it in near enough detail, what information is given that can be latched onto is extremely hollow and conveys laughter more than anything else because of how disingenuous it all is and how little the band itself seems to care, and the production values are very shoddy with camerawork that puts found footage hackery to shame. It’s worse than Unfinished Business, as this didn’t even have a nice ending to ease things up a bit, but it’s still not as bad as The Second Best Word Salad, where the narrative was even more scatterbrained than this one. Unless you’re still a die-hard fan of the group, or some kind of pop culture historian, give this film the widest berth possible.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Movie Review: Run All Night (2015)

Even though I have been carrying on with this compulsive list-of-every-movie-I-see-each-year gig since 2012, I’ve only been taking it… seriously(?) for a few months now with this review blog. The short time I have been doing this makes me think that, quite frankly, Liam Neeson needs to slow the hell down because I have covered three of his films in that time. That, combined with the numerous films he has been in since Taken hit it big, makes me really regret feeling burn-out over the Oscar season pics because I am really starting to grow bored of Neeson’s brand of action fodder. Not to say that he’s bad or anything, as he’s more than capable of playing the hero in these films, but he doesn’t really bring anything special to the mix with his presence. Put him next to someone like Jason Statham, who has not one but two films coming out very soon, and that lack of an USP becomes even more blatant.  So, best we can hope for is that the production around him is solid enough… but do we get that this time around? Time for Neeson no. 4: This is Run All Night.

The plot: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is a former hitman for Irish mob boss and childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Their friendship soon shatters, however, when Jimmy is forced to kill Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) to protect his own son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). With Jimmy and Mike being framed for the murder of two cops, Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio) in hot pursuit and Shawn sending all of his men after the Conlons, including specialized hitman Mr. Price (Common), Jimmy has one night to clear everything up and keep his promise to remove Mike from this way of life.

The cast here is pretty good. Neeson may be a little too comfortable in his role but he shows that same connection with Jaume Collet-Serra that made his performance in Non-Stop so effective. He is essentially playing the same role here of the washed-up lush, just with a flipped morality from being a policeman to being an enforcer. This ends up leading to a damn funny, if incredibly out of place scene, where Neeson essentially plays Bad Santa. Yes, seriously; red suit, fake beard, the whole nine yards. That said, though, he manages to balance the awkward drunk elements of his character with Jimmy’s haunted memories of his past kills; this is the kind of nuance the character needs in order to stand out, and it actually gives hope right from the get-go that this will work out as a film. Ed Harris does really well as the intimidating and yet sympathetic antagonist, while also being one of the few ‘businessmen’ in fiction who seems to have a head on his shoulders; him explaining to his son why he won’t deal heroin again, and the fact that he was good at it being the reason why, is a very welcome reprieve from the all-too-dumb gangsters we’ve been getting of late, especially in other Neeson fare. Joel Kinnaman, while basically serving as Neeson’s sidekick for the most part, acts as a good foil for Neeson and you could genuinely buy the strained familial bond they have with each other. D’Onofrio gets to pull out his Law & Order duds for this one, and shows that he still fits those shoes as well as he did all those years ago. However, by far the biggest surprise in the cast here, aside from a nice Nick Nolte bit part, is Common as Mr. Price. … Good Lord, since when could he be this intense? He plays the role of the stone cold killer with the kind of presence that I never would have guessed he could pull off. I mean, I’ve seen him as an assassin before in Wanted, but that was nothing compared to how well he plays Price’s stoicism, not to mention serving greatly as the secondary antagonist.

This film is built on the foundation of the relationships between the characters, so it will live or die by how well these are carried off, and in this case man oh man does this film succeed. Neeson and Harris, considering their relationship and its subsequent fallout is what sets the plot into motion, both have excellent chemistry together, reminiscing about the old days and how they have both changed since then. When it comes to light just how far Jimmy was willing to go for his friend and boss, you easily buy all of it on the strength of their performances together. Neeson and Kinnaman as father and son, while dipping every so often into the clichéd “I’m trying to protect you from X way of life” pool, interact well and manage to sell the concept without going too far into schmaltz or, as with A Good Day To Not Watch Die Hard (seriously, the movie is absolutely awful), too far into apathy.

While these character interactions work well in terms of building the film’s plot, which may be scattershot but focused enough to make the core premise work, the interaction between Jimmy and Price add a surprising amount of subtext to the production. In both of their main fight scenes together, including a damn good setpiece in a burning apartment, you can see a very obvious contrast in their methods: Price’s fighting style is fairly flashy, pulling off a Black Widow wrestling moment at one point, and he’s outfitted with some pretty high-tech equipment like a pistol with red dot sight, night vision glasses and a police radio interceptor to take down the Conlons; Jimmy, on the other hand, is very blunt and straight-forward with his attacks and stands by his revolver and (later on) his shotgun as his arsenal. This comes across like Jimmy is supposed to represent the old guard of action films, kind of ironic given how his emergence in the genre is a fairly recent development, while Price is the embodiment of the new school. This is aided by the fact that the film itself is set during the holiday season, a classic 80’s action staple like in Lethal Weapon and the first two Die Hard films. I may be reading a little too far into things, like always, but it’s this kind of subtext to the action that helps it to stand out from not just Neeson’s other films but also from its competitors.

Now to take a look at the film score, something that is usually unacknowledged on this blog because very few soundtracks end up standing out enough for me. However, this one did stand out because of the person composing it: Junkie XL, a Dutch EDM artist who has gotten a lot of film work in recent years.I have taken to referring to him as the Jai Courtney of composers as the guy gets attached to some pretty crap projects: In the last two years alone, he's worked on Man Of Steel, Paranoia, 300: Rise Of An Empire as well as the all-out failure of fiction that was Divergent. The only ‘good’ film he worked on during this time was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but then again that was as part of a supergroup of composers alongside Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams; also, that film is still pretty hotly contested as to whether or not it is actually good. So yeah, with that in mind, Junkie has his name attached to a decent movie again. I’ll try to keep that in mind when his soundtrack for the impeding monstrosity that is Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice comes along.

All in all, this is a surprisingly decent action flick. The acting is good, with a damn nice performance from Common, the writing finally hits that layering that Neeson’s previous films have tried for but never quite reached with well-developed character relationships, the action beats are excellent, particularly the aforementioned apartment scene as well as the fight in the bathroom, and the score has Junkie XL putting his talents to a film that actually deserves them for once. It’s better than American Sniper, as I honestly felt that this dealt with the idea of a man suffering the mental repercussions of his actions better. However, it kind of shames me to admit this, but I actually rank this lower than Jupiter Ascending. Don’t get wrong, this is nowhere near as stupidly written as Jupiter but it honestly kept me more engaged and more entertained than this film did; blame it on the spectacle of the effects work, I guess.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Movie Review: Manny Lewis (2015)

In a weird companion piece to my review of Top Five, I find myself looking at another film starring and written by a stand-up comedian, only this time we’re stepping into my home turf with my favourite stand-up of all time: Carl Barron. The man’s laconic and laidback style to observational humour perfectly encapsulates the Australian sense of humour that would notice an erupting volcano and just go “Bit fuckin’ hot out here.” It is said that the best comedians can make reading the phone book funny, and while Carl hasn’t quite gotten to that point yet, he did at one point make me laugh simply by counting how many people in the audience were laughing. That’s the kind of delivery the man has got. So, when I heard that he was going to be in a feature film, I pretty much just tore up the preconceptions I walked into Top Five with and got ultra-hyped for this thing, ignoring the usual fare of comedians’ first time in films and the fact that it was co-produced by Channel Seven, whom also did the pretty damn awful The Water Diviner. Let’s take a look: This is Manny Lewis.

The plot: Manny Lewis (Carl Barron) is a famous stand-up comedian performing to sell-out crowds and on the cusp of making to the international stage, but behind closed doors he finds himself lonesome and unable to connect with people. As he wrestles with his childhood memories and his shyness around women, he happens across Maria (Leeanna Walsman) in a coffee shop and the two start to hit it off. Could Manny have finally found someone?

The core idea behind calling a film a ‘guilty pleasure’ boils down to it failing as one thing, be it dramatic, scary or otherwise, but succeeding as another thing, usually hilarious because of how it fails to be serious. It is rare that I find this principle being applied to a film that isn’t necessarily a bad film, but at least one that has been pretty badly marketed. Everywhere I turn, I see this film being called a ‘feel-good comedy’, and every time I see that as a descriptor for this movie, I keep looking for the writer in question’s name to be Marquis de Sade because that is pretty much the only way that this could be construed as feel-good. One of the oldest rules of comedy is that there is a nugget of truth behind every joke; Barron and co-writer/director Anthony Mir take that idea and dive head-first into it, coming out the other side with less of anything feel good but more sobering and, ultimately, more than a little depressing. What makes this even stranger is that, despite how this may sound, it actually works in that regard.

The main story of this, essentially, is that of a rom-com, sprinkled in with bits of stand-up narration by Manny. At first, these routines are of Barron’s usual standard and are quite funny, but as the film continues and bits of his relationship with his father, played by a very on-point Roy Billing, bubble to the surface, there’s a certain dark undercurrent to the material. Like a lot of other comedians out there, Manny uses comedy as a means of coping with his mental baggage, often acting like he’s still doing his comedy even when he’s off-stage and on his own with himself as the audience, as if he needs someone, anyone, to laugh with him. This, combined with his frustration over his love life and jealousy over those who have been more successful in that field than him, such as his friend and manager Jimmy, makes him look like the Pagliacci joke was written with him specifically in mind. This all comes to a head when, under the guise of him practicing his act with some ‘jokes’ about his father, he finally lashes out in what may be a pretty basic bit of symbolism but is still a really effective scene and the definite highpoint of the film. This film may not entirely succeed at making you all warm inside, but it definitely succeeds at making for good drama and insight into the mind of a comedian… or, at least, it would.

Like I said before, this is pretty much a rom-com by design and it is here that we get to the gaping maw of a problem this film has: The story, the main focus of the film, is painfully pedestrian and lacking in anything resembling tension. While Barron and Walsman have good chemistry together on screen, their relationship is developed without any major deviations from formula: Meet-cute, first date, she gets him to be more out-going, he thinks he truly loves him, misunderstanding that causes a break-up at around the start of the third act, he has to stop her from going overseas and out of his reach forever, kiss, roll credits. The only thing that differs from the standard machinations of the rom-com is the sub-plot about Manny’s initial relationship with a phone sex operator, which could have strengthened the character arc had it not been for the fact that it is essentially little more than a ticking clock to when the misunderstanding happens. If the identity of the operator wasn’t revealed right at the very start, and the sub-plot itself was given an actual resolution, then it could have worked. Oh yeah, that’s the other big thing: Nothing gets resolved by film’s end. We get bare-bones plot resolution concerning Manny and his father as well as him and Maria, but it isn’t on any kind of satisfying note and more just dropped with a shrug and a heavy clunk to the ground.

All in all, with a few minor tweaks, this could have seriously been a great movie. The comedy is still really good and shows Barron in true form, the writing shows a lot of meaning at its core when it comes to Manny’s character and the acting is pretty good overall, but the lack of proper resolution and sheer laziness when it comes to the romance seriously drag this film down. It’s better than Jupiter Ascending, as the writing may be troubled but it isn’t nearly as messy as in that film. However, in terms of combining character tragedy with more humourous moments, The Theory Of Everything did a better job of it. Even with the romantic issues though, I still find myself recommending this film; just know that this isn’t going to be as happy-go-lucky as some have billed it as being.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Movie Review: Big Eyes (2015)

It’s fan-boy time again, this time looking at the newest film from Tim Burton, one of my favourite directors. Of course, openly admitting to such things isn’t exactly the safest of prospects considering his more recent output like Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows, some of his older work like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Sleepy Hollow or even just the fact that his style is just that recognizable that, quite frankly, an awful lot of people are getting sick of seeing it, especially given how influential it has become. But I couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of that: I grew up watching his films from Beetlejuice to Sweeney Todd, I’ve always dug his garish yet Gothic style and I genuinely think that his cinematic sensibilities helped make me the person I am today… although, to be fair, that might just give readers another reason to hate him for all I know. Not to say that all of his films follow his usual aesthetic, as today’s film will no doubt attest ; this is the first Burton film I can remember seeing that wasn’t playing at a mainstream cinema and after seeing it, I kind of get why. This is Big Eyes.

The plot: Margaret (Amy Adams) is an artist in San Francisco who paints portraits of waifs with large eyes. After meeting fellow painter, and eventual husband, Walter Keene (Christoph Waltz), they decide to try and sell their paintings together. However, once Walter starts selling Margaret’s works under his own name, the big-eyed paintings start getting extremely popular, causing Walter to want to monetize on it as best he can and Margaret is forced to keep quiet about who the real artist is. But as the lies grow deeper and Walter’s actions get worse, Margaret starts to crack under the strain of it all and wants to see proper recognition for her work.

As I said in the intro, this film doesn’t really look or feel like a typical Tim Burton film, aside from the ever-present and always-good Danny Elfman on music duties. In fact, this might be one of Burton’s most surreal pictures purely because it differs from Burton’s usual aesthetic. However, while this doesn’t have the dark and moody lighting nor the bright pastels of his more recognizable work, this does fit in with his previous work with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: Ed Wood, another one of Burton’s more standard ventures. There’s a certain feeling of specialization involved here that echoes the sensibilities of Ed Wood: Whereas that film was shot and edited so that it looked closer to the 1950’s schlocky B-movies of the time, even down to the black-and-white camera stock, the cinematography for Big Eyes is very picturesque and evokes images of paintings, almost like a Peter Greenaway film. Burton’s choice to stick with his lesser used cinematic methods was a smart move, as the story of Margaret Keene could have easily been overshadowed by Burton’s usually very pronounced and noticeable style. Given Burton’s respect for Keene and her work, having commissioned a painting by her himself back in the day, you can definitely see that on display with how much care was put into the film.

While we don’t get any of the Burton Street Regulars this time around (which may well be a selling point to some audiences), this film sports a pretty good cast spearheaded by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as the leads. Waltz, put simply, is kind of insane in this movie, all manic energy and a special brand of sliminess which he has built his current reputation on with films like Inglorious Basterds and The Green Hornet. He’s fairly over-the-top for the most part, but when he’s supposed to be taken as charming initially he pulls it off as well. Then again, his more overblown moments fit the tone of the film without going too far, as this is a pretty surreal story as is. He can also get very intimidating at the drop of a hat, and… yeah, it may bring on a few nightmares. Amy Adams, on the other hand, portrays the tragedy and mental strain of her role beautifully, showing naivety while keeping it within the realms of reality, which is apparently not as easy to accomplish as it seems if every other film is anything to go by, as well as strong force of will and determination. Aside from our mains, we also have Danny Huston as a journalist. Now, Huston has a real knack for playing complete twats on films, whether it’s in comedies like How To Lose Friends And Alienate People or in more serious works like The Number 23 and 2012’s Hitchcock. This is why it came as a surprise to me that here, where he is playing a character literally called Dick, he is at his most restrained in that department. He’s a bit of an asshole here, but ultimately his character is just looking for a good story.

While this film didn’t immediately make me think ‘Tim Burton’, the main story did make me think of another certain eccentric director while I was watching it: John Waters. Specifically, his 1981 black comedy Polyester. Now, I might be a stick in the mud here, but I honestly see Polyester as less of a comedy (regardless of how dark it was meant to be in that regard) and as more of a tragedy; I seriously felt for Divine’s Francine Fishpaw and all the terrible shit that happened to her over the course of that movie. I bring this up because, with all that happens to Margaret Keene in this film, it evoked a similar reaction and one that I haven’t felt this strongly since seeing Polyester. Sure, a lot of the events happening are at least partially of Margaret’s own doing, but between Burton’s fantastic direction that show off his skills as opposed to his idiosyncrasies, Adams’ great acting and Alexander and Karaszewski’s blunt yet accurate writing, this gets seriously emotional during a lot of it. Whether it’s from showing just sadistic and vile Walter is to both Margaret and her daughter, to seeing how badly her situation is affecting her and the psychology damage it’s no doubt causing her, this greatly shows what I consider to be the difference between good depressing and bad depressing: Bad depressing is where a film is engineered solely to get the audience to feel sad without any real reasoning behind it; good depressing is where a film makes the audience sad but it actually has a pay-off to it and doesn’t just exist for its own sake. With that in mind, though, the climactic courtroom scene where Waltz has to defend himself is absolutely hilarious, showing off Waltz at his Waltziest and James Saito playing a very reactionary judge that only adds to it.

The film opens on a quote from Andy Warhol talking about Keene’s big eye artwork: “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Now, I have my own issues with some aspects of the pop art movement, namely that it gave way to far too many ‘performance artists’ to stare blankly at a wall on a theatre stage in the name of artistic expression; just because it’s art doesn’t make it good by default. However, I do agree with Warhol’s idea that high art shouldn’t held up on a pedestal above all other forms of art, a mindset that this film champions. Through Terence Stamp’s portrayal of a high art critic, we see an example of the cultural elitism that has never ceased to drive me up several walls with its arrogance; largely, it involves him denouncing the big eye pieces in favour of the Abstract Expressionism of the time, something that the film directly makes fun of through Jason Schwartzman’s snooty museum curator Ruben along with the frequent hipster onlooker. However, even though Stamp could be seen as a high art strawman, this is probably one of the few times when a critic has been shown in a relatively realistic manner because he actually has a relevant point when criticizing Walter’s (read: Margaret’s) work, even if it may not be intentional. Margaret Keene’s work is indeed art, of what caliber is of no real importance, but once Walter took control and turned it into the full-fledged business that it became, it stopped being art; and no, I’m not saying this as some statement that monetizing art is a bad thing, because I live in the real world and I understand that, for better or for worse, money keeps society going. Art, at least as I define it, is any form of artistic expression that shows some aspect of the artist’s mindset; Walter Keene’s adoption and subsequent distribution of Margaret’s work made it cease to be genuine art and became just another means of commodity; it could argued that it’s still art, but it’s being done for all the wrong reasons. While Stamp may be commenting on how kitsch isn’t art, his words also have a double meaning that the product of forceful coercion also isn’t art, which all of her paintings had become. Considering this, it’s kind of fitting that the trial ended on the note that it did, both in the film and in reality.

All in all, while it carries the hallmarks of quite a few biopics of late, and yes that includes the obligatory slideshow during the credits, the acting is on-point with Waltz and Adams doing amazingly well and keeping this fairly melodramatic story from coming across as such, the music is by Danny Elfman (no need for elaboration on that one) and the writing holds a lot of weight behind it, all brought together by Burton showing exactly what he is capable of when he gives himself room to maneuver in and not restricting himself to his typical Gothic methodology: His best cinematic effort in years. It’s better than Top Five, as the writing and pacing are a bit tighter this time around, but it doesn’t hold up as well as Wild for me, whose experimental production values that I won’t stop gushing over still outperform this. Even if you’re not a fan of Tim Burton’s work, considering how much this differs from his regular fare, I would still highly recommend checking this one out.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Movie Review: Top Five (2015)

As a means to prove that comedy isn’t exactly equal across all fields, not every comedian that branches out into becoming an actor succeeds. I mean, for every Robin Williams who manages to not only succeed but succeed beyond the realm of comedic works, we get a Larry The Cable Guy who manages to make people miss their already lame stand-up with the cesspool-quality acting they bring to the big screen. Not to say that the best stand-up comedians are immune from making crap; as much as I love Robin Williams’ great films, he made his fair share of bombs back in the day. So, when news hit that Chris Rock, someone who fits nicely in my top five favourite stand-ups and who has a pretty shaky filmography himself, was releasing another film that he directed and also wrote on his own, I can be forgiven for being a bit worried. Time to see how it actually turned out. This is Top Five.

The plot: Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is an actor and former stand-up comedian. After seeing success with the Hammy The Bear series of films, he wants to start being taken seriously and stars in the more dramatic film Uprize. While doing publicity for the film and setting up for his highly publicized wedding to his reality star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union), he is interviewed by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a fan of his from his stand-up days. As the interview goes on, Andre confesses to his on-going problem with alcoholism, and with Uprize not doing as well as he’d hoped and everyone wanting him to do more Hammy The Bear, he finds himself confronted with a big question: Can he still be funny sober?

The cast is filled with some pretty notable names in stand-up comedy, both past and present. For a start, we have Chris Rock himself in prime form, finally having found an outlet where he can properly translate his no-holds-barred persona to the big screen that works unlike… well, every other film where he’s played a stand-up comedian. Cedric The Entertainer has a good run as the cocky and kind of disgustingly hilarious Jazzy Dee, contributing to one of the few bits of gross-out humour of late that has actually worked. Tracy Morgan, a comedian I’m not that fussed about, and Kevin Hart, whose disdain I have for is well-documented by this point, both pull off decent performances but that might be because of the wise move to give them smaller roles. J.B. Smoove as Silk, Andre’s assistant, is goofy and loveable in that semi-pathetic kind of way and makes for a good foil for Rock when they together. Later on in the film, we also get cameos from three veterans comedians who party with Andre in a strip club: Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld. Whoopi Goldberg serves as a good mediator for this scene, delivering sound advice to fit the plot. Adam Sandler, with just one reaction, gets some of the biggest laughs he’s gotten in years, although his inclusion is a little bizarre given how I swear there’s a not-so-subtle jab at him in an earlier scene. The bona fide winner, however, is Seinfeld, who is so strangely in his element in the scene, giving jocular advice on infidelity and talking with strip club bouncers, that he makes for the acting highlight of the movie.

We have Chris Rock writing the script, and with no Louis C.K. kicking around this time, Chris is actually given a chance to be funny and he takes full advantage of it. The plot moves in a very vignette style, comprised of quite a few narrated stories from Andre and others. These moments are where we see Rock’s stand-up material given full flight and makes for some damn good comedy: Whether it’s the drunken threesome or Chelsea discussing her boyfriend, it never fails to crack me up. That’s not to say that this film is all mirth and no matter, because this is a script that has some serious teeth to it. When it isn’t essentially lacerating the Hollywood system, the critics, racial sensibilities, reality television or just the art of comedy in general, it focuses mainly on answering the sobriety question along with the old “Can a clown be taken seriously?” bit. With the former, Andre’s character arc in that regard is very well-executed, portraying his drunken lows with a lot of humour while not shying away from the stark depression that such experiences can have. It’s like how all tragedies can become funny in time; it doesn’t stop them from being tragedies in the first place. Throughout the film, we see Andre trying to maintain his sobriety while working hard to get his new film to turn in a profit and get people to stop pestering him about being Hammy, culminating in quite possibly one of the most cathartic moments captured on film. I won’t dare spoil it, but it’s a great example of the kind of scenes that make me want to watch movies at all; it’s that good. When it comes to answering the question, *SPOILERS* in the scene where Andre actually performs a stand-up routine, not only does it show that the answer is a resounding yes, but it also serves as a great mind clearing moment for the character through some choice subject matter for his jokes.
In terms of the latter question about being taken seriously, it’s handled with far less optimism, going instead with the refreshingly honest answer that maybe some people should stick to what they know best, portrayed in a rather surreal yet entertaining manner through a surprise cameo. Now, while this idea has merit to it, without a doubt, it would ring truer to my ears if I hadn’t already seen my fair share of comedians step outside their comfort zone and do some pretty good dramatic works, like the aforementioned Robin Williams and even Jim Carrey on occasion. Not to say that it’s by any means bad, just that it’s a case-by-case basis.

Then there’s the matter of the title and how it factors into the film itself, and this is where things get really get interesting for me. Chris Rock has a very well-publicized love for hip-hop and it shows quite a lot here with the leitmotif of him discussing with friends and colleagues what their top five favourite rappers are. It even extends into Andre’s discussion about other comedians, calling Charlie Chaplin the KRS-One of comedy. Now, while this could be just a simple dialogue quirk to add flavor to the overall script, there seems to be something in the subtext on this one. This might just be my own strained readings, but I saw the whole top five thing as a sign of trust between characters; these sort of discussions about who are the greatest MCs or what was the doper posse track only really spring in circles of good friends who all happen to be hip-hop heads. The scene where Chelsea says her own top five best illustrates this and makes for a pretty good film moment as well. And then there’s Seinfeld spouting his own list during the credits, which further cements his status as the best thing about this movie. The fixation of rap music extends to behind the scenes as well as Questlove, the drummer and main producer for indie favourite The Roots, is music supervisor this time around, bringing a lot of classic tunes by guys like Ghostface Killah, DMX and Public Enemy. He also composed the film score alongside Childish Gambino’s partner in production crime Ludwig Göransson, and it all sounds sweet. And while we’re on the subject of rappers, this is officially the first film I’ve seen Jay-Z produce that doesn’t suck on toast; must be Kanye once again bringing out the best in him, as he also co-produces this. Probably explains the use of their song Niggas In Paris as a musical motif, but then again that song works really well with Andre's character arc anyway.

All in all, this deals with similar subject matter as Birdman, only with more of an emphasis on comedy in both tone and focus. The cast all do outstanding, with Chris Rock delivering major laughs throughout, the writing has a couple of moments I could nitpick such as some parts of the relationship development, but for the most part it’s funny, clever and very poignant, and the soundtrack is a god-send for major hip-hop heads like myself. One quote I see used in a lot of the ads is that this the movie that Chris Rock was born to make, and I couldn’t agree more. I rank it higher than Selma, as I felt a much deeper connection with the main character this time around, but by that same token this isn’t as good as Wild, where the technical aspects did that even better. In either case, this gets a wholehearted recommendation.

Oh, and for the record: Black Thought from The Roots, Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, DOOM and Busta Rhymes, with Slug from Atmosphere as my sixth man. Yeah, I’m a bit of a backpacker as well as a Rhymesayers junkie.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Movie Review: Seventh Son (2015)

With Hollywood currently ingrained in third-wave YA adaptation territory with the upcoming finale to the Hunger Games series later on this year and the recently released thing-I-look-forward-to-like-an-axe-to-the-genitals Insurgent, it’s kind of refreshing to a good old fashioned first-wave fantasy film. Sure, it’s another retread of the Hero’s Journey that most scriptwriters can literally write in their sleep, but any variety is better than no variety. Of course, last time “Young Adult Adaptation” and “Jeff Bridges” shared space with each other, we got the severe let-down The Giver, so I can’t exactly say that I’m looking forward to this all that much. However, the combo of Bridges and Julianne Moore will attract me to pretty much anything at this rate, so let’s get into this. This is Seventh Son.

The plot: Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is a Spook, a knight tasked with fighting the creatures of the dark. After the witch queen Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) escapes her confinement that Gregory placed her in years before, and begins her plans for revenge, Gregory enlists a new apprentice in the form of Tim (Ben Barnes), a seventh son of a seventh son who has visions of the future. Gregory must train Tim to be ready for the Blood Moon, where every witch will be at the height of their power, and finally put an end to Malkin.

The cast here are… actually, I’m not even sure if there’s a word to accurately describe the effect here for the most part. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges, in what appears to be the weirdest attempt at a Big Lebowski reunion possible, are extremely bizarre in their respective roles. Moore, possibly after seeing her heart-breaking turn in Still Alice, feels like she went full method and studied every evil witch in fiction to nail down her on-screen presence, resulting in a performance that is a little creepy, a little intimidating and, honestly, a little hot in that crazy-sexy kind of way. I highly doubt that anyone else would be able to compliment someone’s shoes and make it sound as hilarious and worrying as Moore does here. On the other end of this is Bridges, who sounds like he’s trying to do his best Gandalf impression through a mouth full of chewing tobacco. The fact that he looks like a hobo Green Arrow just makes his already awkward voice sound even funnier. However, possible due to Bridges’ natural charisma that always manages to shine through even in his worst films, his aloof attitude and line delivery somehow make all of that work in his favour. He is carries himself off as that much of a badass for the most part that I wouldn’t dare bring any of this up to his face, half out of respect for the guy and half out of fear that he would smash my face with a full tankard of ale. With these two on screen, the supposed lead Ben Barnes feels like a bit of an afterthought, but he is very entertaining in his own right with plenty of dry snark to his character, working really well at complimenting and, at times, contrasting with Bridges, making for a good buddy dynamic between them. Seeing Kit Harington get some cinematic karma for his role in Pompeii is a big plus as well.

The CGI is mostly good; not to say that it looks entirely realistic, but it serves its purpose in this fantastical setting. A lot of the effects work, and by association a lot of the action beats, involve shapeshifting by the villains into dragons, flying creatures and… jungle cats (Drew a short straw on that one) and they are passable. I specify mostly good, because this yet another film where the green screening is outright garbage; we get quite a lot of Puma Man moments here with how laughable they get. As for the action, this film peaks a little too early with Gregory in a bar brawl; his attitude, his one-liners, the Drunken Master fight choreography that feels like a watered-down version of that found in The World’s End; it’s a damn good scene that the rest of the film never really manages to catch up with.

Of course, this all would have worked a bit better if there was a decent script behind it all, as is the case with an awful lot of films of late. However, it seems like there has been at least a vague attempt at trying to inject some grey morality into the proceedings. Gregory and Malkin, from the offset, are surrounded with an air that they may not be on the sides we initially think that they are, with Gregory being a bit bloodthirsty in his methods and Malkin just trying to protect her own brood. However, it genuinely seems like this film isn’t nearly clever or self-aware enough to make any real use of such things. As such, the only thing that can be solidly grasped from all this is that Gregory is pretty incompetent at his job, taking the typical jaded approach to his demon-hunting duties and coming across more like he just doesn’t care about the innocent. That, and a fight scene with him and Kit Harrington against Malkin as his previous apprentice gives a pretty vivid idea on why his apprentices keep dying if this is how he instructs them to fight. Now, while the failed attempts at shades of grey (a phrase that I don’t think anyone will be able to read the right way ever again) are bad and fill the movie with this feeling of extreme uncertainty in terms of what the writers were intending, there is something else that tops even that. I call this collective moment “The Convenience Ledge” and it is a constant barrage of increasingly lazy writing that it legitimately one of the worst pieces of plot convenience that I have ever seen. *SPOILERS* After Gregory is kidnapped and Tom falls over a cliff, we find that he managed to land on a small ledge relatively unharmed, THEN we see that Gregory’s weapon landed right next to him, THEN Tom gets a visit from his now-deceased mother on how to defeat the main villain, THEN we see that Gregory’s servant Tusk also survived falling off of the cliff and is hanging from the ledge while all this is going on. Words fail me on this one, although my laughter certainly didn’t as I was cracking up uproariously in the cinema during all this. Thankfully, I was one of only three people in the cinema at the time.

All in all, this is pretty lame but not to the point of inducing anger in its audience. The effects work is decent and the acting is okay, even if it may be haphazard in areas, the writing is gloriously awful in its failed attempts at differing moralities and world-building in general, not to mention the sheer hilarity that is The Convenience Ledge. It’s better than Mortdecai, as this doesn’t contain any moments that come anywhere close to being as annoying as that movie. I will admit, though, that replacing Tusk with Jock would have improved this movie immensely. However, I’m ranking it lower than The Interview, which nets more points because more effort was put into the script, even if it also kind of messed it up by the end. If you’re planning on watching, I’d advise waiting for when you can watch at home with friends, as this is another film that is great fodder for late-night riffing sessions. Otherwise, you can skip this one.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Movie Review: Far From Men (2015)

In the world of film criticism, or at least how I perceive it, there are very few things that scream pretension as loudly to me as the phrase “French Film Festival”. Sure, it may just be the still-lingering stereotype of what film snobs prefer to watch that I find myself clinging to, but there’s also the fact that I have little to no patience for pretense as my hatred for Terrence Malick and the Annie remake will show. However, there are always exceptions to arbitrarily written rules and I found myself going to a film that was screening for a French Film Festival in my area (Incidently, in the same cinema where I’ve gone to five interactive screenings of The Room). This is because I saw that Nick Cave did the soundtrack for it alongside Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis. So, out of love for not only the man’s music but also 20,000 Days On Earth, my favourite film of 2014, I decided to give it a go. This is Far From Men.

The plot: In 1950’s French-occupied Algeria, school teacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) is entrusted with an Arab prisoner named Mohamed (Reda Kateb) who is to be sentenced to death. Reluctantly, Daru agrees to take custody of Mohamed and escort him to Tinguit where his sentence will be carried out. As the two make their way across the desert and learn more about each other, they both find themselves trying to escape their respective pasts.

One of the main reasons I try to avoid subbed foreign films as best I can is, to be completely honest, I’m not confident about reading people’s emotions when they’re speaking a language I do understand, let alone one that I don’t. However, even with that barrier in mind, Viggo and Reda both do great jobs here. Viggo seems to be doing his best Man With No Name impression, but that’s not to say that it is a full-blown Eastwood impersonation though; it’s more than he portrays the same kind of strong and silent type that is a staple of many great Westerns, even those outside of the U.S. Reda, initially, also lets his actions speak for him but with him that’s more out of general meekness than strength. As more of his character is revealed, he loosens up accordingly and helps make his arc more than just the writing at work. Together, Viggo and Reda have great on-screen chemistry, making for a really good buddy duo that effortlessly gets through the script’s more definitively French moments. I mean, I doubt that the conversations about virginity like those seen here would occur in a film from any other region, but at the same time it’s in no way jarring; given how bleak the rest of the film is, they serve to break up the otherwise rather harrowing backdrop.

This film is adapted from the short story ‘The Guest’ by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and while writer-director David Oelhoffen may have created a more optimistic interpretation of the original text, relatively speaking, this still feels true to Camus’ work at its core. In his essay The Myth Of Sisyphus, he posed the theory that the only really serious philosophical question is that of suicide and if life is worth living; all other philosophical questions stem from that. Now, as much as Camus denied being labelled an Existentialist all his life, considering a question of whether or not to intentionally end one’s own mortal existence to be the starting point of philosophy is a very existential way of thinking and something that is echoed in this film’s writing. *SPOILERS* Both of the main characters struggle with the idea of ending their own lives, although this is metaphorical for the most part aside from the main plot point of Mohamed walking to his own execution. Daru, a former member in the French military, is confronted by his former brothers-in-arms fighting on either side of the Algerian Revolution and he just wants to avoid fighting altogether, preferring to take the route of teaching Algerian children to read and speak French so that they can at least survive in the country as it stands. Mohamed’s reason behind his imprisonment and sentence is brought on by his cultural traditions, starting with an act of murder just to save his own life evolving into a cycle that threatens not only him but the rest of his family as well, with even some of his family trying to kill him no less. This idea of choices and trying to defy one’s past, as shown by the backstories of our two main characters, is beautifully constructed as the writing around them complement and contrast each other superbly, aided greatly by the already-mentioned rapport the two actors clearly had with each other.

So, with writing that’s this good, it may come as a shock to learn that I really can’t get behind this film as a whole and a pretty big part of that has to do with the soundtrack, the main impetus for me to see this film in the first place. Not to say that the soundtrack itself is bad; far from it, Cave and Ellis maintain the level of quality that I expect from them with a very stripped-down score with a very eerie and unsettling serenity to it. However, as the film pressed on, I began to notice something: There wasn’t a whole lot of music being used here; for the most part, the film abandons non-diegetic sound altogether. The reasoning behind this makes sense, as the lack of noise does help build the vacuous atmosphere of the film, but oddly enough the score manages to convey that empty hopeless feeling even better than the silence does. To make things worse is the simple fact that there are a lot of scenes here of just Daru and Mohamed walking through the desert, with no sound other than the crunching of the rocks beneath their feet. Before too long, these scenes become very monotonous and start reminding me of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, an astoundingly bad black hole of a movie that is literally little more than Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walking through a desert for two hours. No, I am not exaggerating. There is a lot more going on plot-wise this time around, so it isn’t nearly as banal, but that doesn’t change the fact that these scenes eventually stop building an appropriate atmosphere and instead start dragging the pace of the film down around them. These scenes could have been far more watchable if they had more of a backing score to them. However, to be fair, there is one scene where the slow pace and long shots work immensely in the film’s favour: *SPOILERS* When Mohamed and Daru reach a fork in the road, one leading to Tinguit and the other leading to the mountains, there is a very long unbroken shot of Mohamed just looking at the paths ahead of him with Daru looking at him from the distance. This is the scene that I would isolate as where the use of cinematic language reaches its peak in terms of efficacy, as this is a pretty damn intense moment despite what little we actually see.

All in all, this is undoubtedly one of the best written films I’ve seen in a while, with great acting and a really moving soundtrack to accompany the script. However, the soundtrack isn’t used nearly enough to be as effective as it could be, making me question why Cave and Ellis were attached to this film in the first place, and the pace is way too slow to maintain its good points. Really, it only has reason to be watched within a film studies class and not anywhere else. It’s better than Project Almanac, as the writing is pretty much free from any distractingly ill thought-out moments, but it falls short of The Gambler, which while also being more of a case study than a film proper kept me more engaged than this film did.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Movie Review: Unfinished Business (2015)

I’ve seen my fair share of vacant cinemas before; back when I first started this compulsion, and had a lot more time on my hands, I’d be watching films whenever I could… even when other people weren’t. This would usually mean that I’d get maybe a couple of others in the cinema with me on occasion. This time, however, was a first: I was literally the only person in that theatre. Now, normally this would be ideal, because it means that if the film is particularly rancid than I could just do my own RiffTrax to keep my sanity in check… what little of it there is left. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t work so well when you’re going to see a comedy, the only steadfastly riff-proof genre out there (not World War II documentaries fall into this category). Take this into consideration along with the fact that today’s film is starring the still-present Vince Vaughn for reasons that entirely escape me, and the bar for this is already set pretty low. Time to see if this can spring past it or dig itself even deeper: This is Unfinished Business.

The plot: Businessman Dan (Vince Vaughn), tired of being unappreciated at work, quits and starts his own small company with Tim (Tom Wilkinson) and Mike (Dave Franco). To seal the deal that could save their finances and their business, the three travel to Europe only to discover that Dan’s former boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) is also trying to broker a deal. As Dan struggles to convince Jim (James Marsden) and Bill (Nick Frost) to side with him over her, him and his colleagues are taken through one hell of a ‘business’ trip.

The cast here is a heady mixture of awkwardly bad and awkwardly good. Vince Vaughn is the same as he was last I checked with The Internship; loud-mouthed and bland, although he isn’t all that annoying. Sienna Miller is a footnote, despite being the film’s antagonist; she has very little presence on screen aside from general bitchiness and her inevitable “I’ve been bested” moment is… non-existent. She plays it off like it doesn’t even bother her, although I’m not sure whether the limp acting or the limp writing is to blame here. Then again, it could be both. But by far, the worst offender here is Dave Franco, who couldn’t any more annoying even if he was blowing a vuvuzela right into the boom mic in every scene. He is, I’m guessing, written to have a certain child-like innocence because of his age, but what we actually get from the acting and writing is the most literal interpretation of ‘man-child’ that I’ve ever seen. I feel the urge to stoop down and use the R word to describe him, but then again I don’t want to offend people with actual mental problems by comparing them to this guy.

Thankfully, we have two very capable actors who help pick the slack a bit. Tom Wilkinson, who ever since seeing Selma I keep noticing in movies recently, acts as a very efficient straight man to combat Franco’s derp incarnate and Vaughn’s mediocrity and delivers his lines very well. He even manages to make a 50 Shades of Grey joke funny; that’s how much he gives for this role. The other high point in the cast list is Edgar Wright regular Nick Frost, whose mere presence in this film nets it a 5% increase in quality. While he does end up as the butt (or rather the dick) of a pretty stupid gay joke, if that scene even qualified as a joke, but the man’s comedic timing is as good as ever even if the script heavily lets him down. Hell, he even manages to wring a few drops of pathos out of his scenes; a major feat, considering what typically qualifies for pathos in this thing.

This might be one of the dullest and most meandering plots I’ve seen in a comedy, to the point where I’m not even sure if it qualifies as such. It pretty much amounts to a series of short occurrences that serve no other purpose to be a cog to further the film’s plot, which would be fine if said occurrences were in any funny but for the most… wow, this reaches new heights of irritating and a lot of it rests on how aggravating Mike is. There’s a difference between portraying a childish nature and show a grown-ass human being asking about the wheelbarrow position over and over and over again, along with being the ‘reindeer man’. Not to say that the other characters get all that much to work with, either. Vaughn mostly gets saddled with weak sexual innuendo, usually to do with the handshake that confirms the deal, as well as a painfully laughless exchange between him and Sienna about him wearing yoga pants. The scene goes on for so long that you can almost hear the director sighing behind the camera, just waiting to yell “Cut!” at the top of his lungs. Or at least, if Ken Scott has any sense, that’s what he should have been doing.

Then we get into the attempts made throughout to tug at the heartstrings of the audience, and it is here that I have to tip my hand a little. Vaughn’s The Internship, while overall being pretty damn awful, managed an ending that somehow won me over ever so slightly. Maybe it was out of desperation because the rest of it was as bad as it was, but I walked away from it more pleasantly than I thought I would have purely on the strength of that ending. Do we get anything like that this time around? … Kind of. Honestly, the only character whose happy ending I gave two damns about was Tim, which will happen when he’s the only main who is in any way watchable. Dan’s ending is built up from various drive-by scenes involving his children having trouble at school that is pretty much dropped with a shrug by film’s end, and Mike… doesn’t really get a resolution, although I doubt any ending with him would have been worth it.

All in all, it’s a sloshy bucket of horse manure with a couple of silver nuggets submerged in it. The characters range from good to outright infuriating, the acting is bare bones save for Wilkinson and Frost, the comedy doesn’t even register about 99% of the time and the music choices are extremely haphazard, sticking to either 70’s cop show or 70’s porno soundtracks that never fit with the action on screen. But, with all that said, the only real lasting effect this film has is making me anxious about how the hell Franco is going to play Greg Sestero in the upcoming film adaptation of The Disaster Artist. It’s better than The Second Best Word Salad as the writing isn’t as noticeably awful, but it ranks lower than The Quarantine Hauntings, which is at least capable of getting bigger laughs than this one did.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Movie Review: Project Almanac (2015)

I try and make an effort when it comes to not letting production companies’ involvement with a movie deter me from seeing it. This is a big exception, though, as we have a triumvirate of worrisome entries here: Insurge Pictures and MTV Films’ only features of note together in recent years are two pop star documentaries and Platinum Dunes is the place where horror remakes go to die a slow and ugly death, while dragging stillborn original concepts down with them. When you include this with the fact that this is yet another entry in the now-largely-boring found footage genre, it starts to look something that belongs in the ‘must-avoid’ pile. But, given how much Michael Bay has managed to seriously surprise me in the last couple of years, I am willing to at least give this a try. That and I am kind of a sucker for time travel. This is Project Almanac.

The plot: Teenaged inventor David (Jonny Weston) has just been accepted into MIT, but he is unable to pay the tuition fees. In the hope of finding something to get him sufficient money, he, his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner) and his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) rummage through his father’s belongings and come across plans to build a working time machine. They work together to make one and test it out, only to discover that their journeys into the past have unexpected effects on the future.

Time travel plots nowadays seem to revolve around two basic ideas: Witness history or change history, and even then the former will undoubtedly lead into the latter. While this film can be compared to quite a few contemporary time travel flicks, something the characters seem to do well enough on their own, one comparison continued to niggle at me while watching this: Given a few tweaks, this is essentially the plot to The Butterfly Effect. From the main character being pushed to the brink of insanity to put right what once went wrong, the impetus that pushes him over that edge, right down to the resolution of the plot, this keeps smacking of something I’ve distinctly seen before and, quite frankly, seen done better. Now, while I would normally include some form of spoiler tag in front of all that just in case, I’m not for the simple reason that this film starts off on quite possibly the worst foot forward for any time travel plot. The event that starts everything into motion, that is David seeing himself at his younger self’s birthday party, pretty much outlines in big, bold letters what is going to occur and how it is all going to be wrapped up in the end. This is anti-tension of the highest order and kills any kind of suspense that could be gained from this kind of thriller.

It almost seems crucial to the sub-genre, but any work of fiction involving going back in time has to include plot holes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as some films like Looper can overcome those plot holes and still be good films in their own right. Here, however, the more glaring issues never cease to annoy through the entire film. Anything concerning time traveler copies is largely ignored, which gets very head-scratchy during the scene where Quinn has to try several times to ace his chemistry presentation; I can’t help but imagine an army of Quinn clones all trapped in a janitor’s closet. Then again, that wouldn’t necessarily work considering this film’s inclusion of ‘feedback loops’, admittedly a rather nifty addition that shows a different approach to the whole “What if you met your past self?” question. Of course, on top of the time plot holes, we also have quite a few logic gaps to contend with here. Among the more egregious of these is the simple fact that, throughout their adventures back in time, they don’t even attempt to keep a low-profile. After all, it would only take one lone person to notice someone apparently being in two places at once for everything to become unraveled before too long. This is made even worse by the fact that, at the start, David shows a token amount of sense in this department by advising a rule of no social media, which is then quickly discarded and using said social media actually becomes a minor plot point in a later scene. Not only that, a majority of the events during the last third could have been averted if David did the sensible thing and admit to what was going on, a cliché that I thought was restricted mainly to shite romantic comedies. For both of the screenwriters here, this is their first attempt at a feature film, let alone a time travel caper, and it shows quite heavily.

Well, the writing doesn’t hold up as much, but how does the rest of it fare? Honestly, the rest of the production isn’t half bad. One of the serious problems I’ve had with some found footage films is the following of the write-every-main-character-to-be-unlikable lemming and thankfully we don’t get too much of that here; the only one who really comes close is Quinn, but he narrowly avoids being overly annoying at any point and mostly sticks to being mildly annoying. The acting, likewise, is pretty good too; I have to give Jonny Weston props for handling his character’s downward spiral in mental clarity during the final reel as well as he did and adding some much-needed oomph to the otherwise kind of tepid ending. I’ve seen a lot of flack given to the found footage camera work, but honestly this is easily some of the slickest I’ve seen in a while for this kind of film; it may be a little too slick and really blurs the line between standard footage and found footage at times, but it looks good. Even the glitch camera effects work here, culminating in what feels like a bit of self-awareness with the finale being filmed with the whites being off-balance due to the camera being knocked around so much. Also, it manages to capture that air of teen wish fulfillment without delving into Project X territory: Getting backstage and on-stage at Lalapalooza, getting the dream girl, building a working time machine out of an Xbox 360 (Yes, as per Michael Bay’s M.O., this film is riddled with product placement); it may be pandering, but it’s pandering that works. The last time I saw a found footage film do it this well, it was with Chronicle; although, I will admit that that film made better use of the FF approach and gave it some dramatic weight to boot.

All in all, while the production as a whole is serviceable, the time travel writing itself doesn’t add enough ingenuity to be of any true merit, not to mention being filled with general plot holes that the majority isn’t able to cover up for. The fact that the plot, like I said, is as derivative as it is only makes recommending this film on any real level even harder. It’s better than Unbroken, as the writing feels a lot more consistent this time around, but it falls short of The Gambler, where the writing has a bit more thought put into it. While I’d highly recommend checking out other recent time travel films instead like Looper, About Time or even last year’s Predestination, this isn’t really a bad watch; it’s just a statistic amongst its peers.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Movie Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)

Well, after our last cinematic outing, something so dull that I just had to post a review for another movie mere minutes after out of shame, to say that I was not looking forward to this is a major understatement. I’m cautious of any film’s sequel, which given the current cinematic climate means that I’m cautious about pretty much every film released these days, because of Rule of Sequels #19: The follow-up(s) is almost never as good. Sure, there are some films that break this rule like Toy Story 3, The Dark Knight, or even some that I’ve discussed before like How To Train Your Dragon 2 and the entire Hunger Games series so far. However, these don’t come around every day and these are usually a result of the original being a good movie in the first place. No such luck here, although I guess that means that there’s no chance of disappointment with this one. Yay? Anyway, this is The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… is it just me or is it called that so that the filmmakers can admit that they know full well that this isn’t going to be as good as the first?

The plot: Sonny (Dev Patel) is gearing up for his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai), while also trying to expand into a second hotel with the help of his co-manager Muriel (Maggie Smith). As various complications arise from this, along with the many other occurrences that happen to the regular residents of the hotel (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie and Diana Hardcastle), two new guests check in: Guy (Richard Gere) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig).

As before, we have a very capable cast of accomplished older actors who once again do fine with the lines they’re given. New addition Richard Gere may be slumming it for a paycheck at this stage, but I’ll happily take this over his previous role in the comedic black hole Movie 43, and Tamsin Greig holds her own along with everyone else. Maggie Smith, thankfully completely removed from the crutch of the racism arc she was given in the original, is given a chance to be entertaining as she does her damndest to be genuinely watchable. However, there are a couple of moments when her punchlines are delivered rather poorly; the “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” bit from the trailer is actually better edited, and better timed, than it is in the finished movie. Nevertheless, given how she was the major chink in the cast list last time, she shows definite improvement. Unfortunately, again like before, these actors aren’t given the best material to work with. In fact, maybe because I’ve had more prolonged exposure to it this time around, but the writing is quite noticeably worse this time around. While the original was adapted from the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, this sequel is an original work; as such, it feels like Ol Parker was struggling to think of new things for the characters to do this time around. The lengths gone to to fill in the running time range from the insanely derivative, *SPOILERS* like a subplot where Sonny thinks Guy is a hotel inspector that is pulled right out of a Fawlty Towers episode only nowhere near as funny, to the just plain insane like the subplot between Norman and his girlfriend Carol. The latter starts out on a twisted ankle of a footing with Norman worried that he has accidently put a hit out on Carol, and it ends with character justification for actions that are just about the worst I’ve seen for this kind of development; how this is billed as anything to make the audience feel good is beyond me. We also have a third-wheel best friend of the bride to deal with here as well for the ‘main’ plot, just in case you haven’t seen enough of that from every other romantic movie ever made.

Now, while all of this is bad enough on its own, it enters into the realm of disastrous when it gets to the ‘twists’ that this film tries to pull over the audience. Said twists are foreshadowed with the subtlety of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, which again is pretty awful on its own but it genuinely feels like the film not only knows that the audience can see them coming, but that it doesn’t even care; it just wants us to grit our teeth and bear it. The only reprieve we get from this mindset is the also-annoying habit of this film trying to subvert its own weak twists with different weak twists that inevitably make little sense because of how heavily the formers were set up. In terms of the dialogue, we get a rather aggressive sprinkling of adverb mangling that hack writers keep getting characters to say if English isn’t their first language: “Your command is my wish” and that kind of thing. The ending, *SPOILERS* while admittedly featuring a fun Bollywood dancing sequence that was a nice distraction, features Maggie Smith delivering one of the lamest, if not the lamest, of these proverbs as the literal final word: “There’s no present like the time.” Gag me. It’s not helped that her entire ending monologue is written like clichéd post-mortem narration, only she doesn’t die at the end; as a result, this sounds like Maggie Smith desperately wants out of the series and trying to will her character into death. Can’t say I blame her, but then again maybe she was supposed to die at the end and they re-wrote it to counter-act all of the jokes about guests dying at the hotel that are never funny and always uncomfortable, especially considering the fact that a guest did die at the hotel in the last movie. Classy.

While all of the little things definitely gave me more things to bitch and moan about, alleviating my fears that I wouldn’t even be able to write a review for this film due to redundancy, the same problems still persist from the original. There are still too many main characters that are shoved into the spotlight with such erratic frequency that the audience can’t latch onto them, even with the advantage of having spent a whole previous movie with most of them. The key difference being that Tom Wilkinson, the best part of the first one who had the most compelling character story, isn’t here to help even things out a bit. I will give some credit for this one at least being a bit more focused in terms of plot, since Sonny is well and truly the main focus for the majority of the film, but that’s only by comparison; this is still a colossal mess.

All in all, this film succeeded my expectations of just being a complete re-hash of the original, as this found whole new ways to be a pain to sit through. The cast is still good but the writing is as cluttered as ever, made even worse by the rather dismal arcs that the characters are saddled with this time around along with the script’s seeming disdain for the audience and not-giving-a-shit about how badly it creates its twists. I'd normally make a job about how this movie is indeed second best, but that implies that the first was all that good to begin; this just happens to be not as good. It’s worse than The Quarantine Hauntings, as that film at least had some reason to exist even if said reason wasn’t capitalized on so well. However, it’s still better than Zhong Kui: Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal, because as much as I didn’t like what was going on here, at least I knew what was going on and the 180-degree turns of the story weren’t nearly as difficult to keep up with.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

As a child of the Internet, I have a tendency to get on the fan-boy defensive when it comes to what I enjoy and as my film-watching has evolved over time, I have started doing the same with some of my favourite filmmakers (albeit, slightly tempered compared to how it used to be). One of the more peculiar examples of this with me is the Wachowskis, a creative duo that hold a very dear place with me mostly because of the Matrix, a franchise that contains some of my earliest experiences with films, anime and video gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that Matrix Revolutions is a confusing and jumbled mess but the first two films and The Animatrix are on very good standings with me. Not only that, their 2013 effort Cloud Atlas is currently my favourite film of that year as well as one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 4-5 years. You’d be right in assuming I had rather lofty expectations of this film considering all that, but did they pay off? This is Jupiter Ascending.

The plot: Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), after several attempts on her life, is informed by a half-man half-wolf soldier called Caine (Channing Tatum) that she is in fact the reincarnation of the sovereign of the Abrasax family, one of the most powerful dynasties in the universe. She soon finds herself embroiled in a familial power play between Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) over control of the planets Jupiter now owns, one of which is Earth.

Since we’re talking Wachowski siblings here, I might as well get the most obvious observation out of the way: This film is absolutely gorgeous to the eye. The effects team here are all frequent collaborators with the siblings and that kind of familiarity pays off as this feels like no visual idea was misinterpreted throughout. The outer space visuals are jaw-dropping in how expansive and detailed they are, the set designs do wonders for the world-building and the make-up and cosmetics are surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because these are the same people who created the Asian alien make-up for Cloud Atlas, which was just about one of the most distracting elements of any film I’ve seen (yeah, I may love that film but even I’ll admit that the make-up got really creepy at times). Here, however, they do a great job along with the CGI department at portraying the man-animal hybrid that are all over this film. The action, likewise, is exceptionally well-executed, showing off the Wachowskis’ affinity for flashy fight scenes. It’d take a certain kind of magic to make Channing Tatum’s fighting on gravity boots, or rather gravity skates given how he moves in them, look good but going with actual stuntmen for the most part instead of going digital definitely paid off. The spaceship and vehicle fights are given an equal amount of care and attention and also look fantastic as a result.

The acting is a bit of a mixed bag: While Mila Kunis may have been given the short end of the stick when it comes to dialogue, given how her lack of reaction to the scope of her situation along with being saddled with some of the dumbest lines in the entire film, she admittedly does well in her central role. Channing Tatum, an actor who seems to have a better understanding of blocking than speaking dialogue, has a very strong physical presence here as Caine and actually does his lines some justice, as wonky as they can get. Sean Bean has always been good as the stoic warrior-type and here is no exception, although probably the most interesting thing about him is easily his casting; fitting that an actor who dies as often as he does would appear in a film that involves reincarnation. Eddie Redmayne as Balem has two acting modes: Soft-spoken, croaky menace and campy roaring, both of which he switches between seemingly at the drop of a hat. However, he still manages to pull it off with this film serving as a great showcase of the actor’s range when paired with his transformative role in The Theory Of Everything. However, the one member of the cast that stood out most to me was one of the vastly smaller roles: Terry Gilliam as the Seal and Signet Minister. I once had Gilliam described to me as the kind of person who would genetically engineer his own race of Orcs just so that his adaptation of Lord Of The Rings would be exactly as he envisioned it; in only a short scene, he manages to capture that kind of wild-eyed alchemist that the Wachowskis must have also seen in him, given how the entire scene leading to him is meant to pay homage to Gilliam’s own Brazil.

The score, provided by The Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino, is just as grand-scale as the setting requires it to be, full of lush string orchestration and operatic choirs. There is never a moment where it feels like Giacchino is half-arsing it with the music… which isn’t entirely a good thing. It feels like he was only told “write for a space opera” in his mission brief because there are quite a few moments when the music is a little too full-on for the action happening on screen. The scene leading up to Gilliam’s appearance is the best example of this, because what we end up seeing is quite possibly the most epic filing of paperwork ever committed to film. The tone of the scene is supposed to be humourous on the offset, but the soundtrack makes me question exactly how much of it was meant to be funny; I mean, even the opening to the Dilbert cartoon didn’t hype up office bureaucracy this much.

After the extremely nimble writing that went into Cloud Atlas, saying this film is a let-down in the writing stakes is a severe understatement. Then again, for as much as they try to give a very philosophical air to their scripts, the Wachowskis have always had a certain visceral style of writing that tends to focus far more on the present than the past. They tend not to think too hard on the setups for the worlds they create and instead focus more on their implications in the film’s now; for example, in The Matrix, the key reason why the titular device exists at all is extremely flimsy. The most glaring example of this comes with the big climactic battle scene at the end. *SPOILERS* Don’t get me wrong, it’s as visually effective as the rest of the film and looks amazing, but its effect starts to falter once you realize that the entire reason why the planet seems to be falling apart, or at least the structures built on it, is because one ship managed to crash through its shield. As much as the Abrasax don’t come across trustworthy in the slightest, I find it hard to believe that they could have amassed this much power without including little things like back-up plans in case things like this would happen. Actually, at points, I find it to believe that the family amassed any sort of power full stop, given how they’re shown to carry out business in this film. Really, the finale borders on Divergent levels of failure at world-building, but thankfully it isn’t nearly that aggravating to witness considering this is the only real moment that bothered me where that's concerned, as opposed to Divergent’s entire running time.

The problems with this script can be attributed to a large amount of little things that begin to stack on top of each other as the film carries on, and it all starts with the title itself. Never mind that calling your main character Jupiter Jones is a tad ridiculous on its own, but then you consider how much of her life seems to involve Jupiter in one way or another; from her star sign (*sigh*) to the seat of power for the Abrasax, it gets annoying before too long. Then there’s the incredibly bad dialogue that’s littered throughout, most of it oddly being given to Jupiter; the scene in the trailers where Jupiter talks about how much she loves dogs is just a taste of it. The other major example of this is a scene where Jupiter and Caine are driving in a stolen car and Caine is bleeding from a wound in his stomach; Jupiter then takes a panty liner from the glove box, saying that “Luckily, a woman owns this car”, and uses it to cover up the wound. In the cinema, I could not stop laughing for a few solid minutes upon seeing this, and not for any of the right reasons; this comes across more like something I would come up with as a joke while watching a film rather than something in the actual product. Of course, when they decide to talk about genetics, this film only gets funnier. It feels like the writers have only tertiary knowledge of how genetics actually work, considering how they seem to think that genes can carry personality traits, can be tracked by smell through the vacuum of space or that bees are genetically disposed to identify alien royalty. I would include the whole reincarnation angle here as well, but then again the Wachowskis have an affinity for the merging of SF and philosophy, but then again said reincarnation of Jupiter has some rather bizarre implications behind it, not the least of which being when one of her sons tries to marry her for her planetary possessions, that the film never even glances at, let alone addresses. Add all of this together with the weirdly complex political and business-savvy story surrounding the Abrasax dynasty and it results in a mostly poor script. I say mostly because it felt like it at least properly understand human ambition and how it would only grow as we expand beyond a single planet, to the point of owning several of them. There are also a few points relating to the argument of how unlikely it is that Earth is the only inhabited planet, or even a planet of real significance in the grand scheme of things, but it’s so old hat by this point that it’s pretty much the bare minimum I would expect from this kind of story.

I want to give this film all the credit for being one of the few films released of late that isn’t adapted directly from a previously existing source material. However, as is usually the case with such things, the film owes a fair lot to older sci-fi fare: The revelation of the Abrasax’s key resource and where it comes from is a plot point that has been repeated so many times that the Wachowskis did it themselves in Cloud Atlas. Not only that, the idea of intergalactic royal families as portrayed here feels like it was pulled straight out of David Lynch’s Dune. Actually, this film has a very similar feeling to that of Dune in that this is also a rather kitschy mess… and yet it is somehow still enjoyable to watch. Yeah, as much as I’ve bitched about here, this is one of the few movies that is dumb but doesn’t feel like it’s actively insulting your intelligence with how dumb it is. It’s the kind of dumb that makes for a rather fun watch, provided it isn’t looked into too deeply… like I have just spent this entire review doing. Oops.

All in all, this film exists in a weird limbo state. On one hand, it’s decently acted with great action scenes and visuals, and dear Lord I hadn’t realized how much I missed watching good old-fashioned space operas until I saw this. But on the other hand, this is a typical Wachowski script which means that it has a lot of issues. However, given how Zhong Kui is still pretty fresh in my memory, I am willing to cut it some slack on that front. This is an incredibly fun watch, even if it really doesn’t make sense at times. It’s better than American Sniper, as there is never a point where this film fails to engage, for good or for ill, but it doesn’t rank as high as The Theory Of Everything which, while also flawed, is more fulfilling on an emotional and dramatic level. That, and Eddie Redmayne gave a far superior performance in that film.