Thursday, 5 December 2013
It seems like most things* that Hugh Jackman touches these days turns to gold (The Fountain, Les Miserables) . Now, Prisoners may be that little bit of gold atop the memorial where your sense of happiness used to live, but it's gold nonetheless.
Prisoners is a crime mystery thriller following the abduction of two little girls. Going in knowing the premise of the film makes the opening that much harder tow watch. It's Thanksgiving and two families are celebrating together. Awful festive jumpers are out, someone's playing the trumpet badly but endearingly and the kids are playing outside. Then they're not. That's it. You don't see them disappear and it makes it feel all the more real, because to the families this sort of terrible thing happens to, that's how it feels. No dramatic chase, no breakneck soundtrack, just a hollow realisation that they're gone.
Jackman plays opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as they both try to solve the case. Jackman as the father of one of the girls who becomes increasingly frustrated with the police's efforts as time goes on and Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki leading the investigation. Together they raise one of the films main questions: how doe s man react? Does he follow his gut and emotion and take justice into his own hands, or does he try to act rational, logical and objective? Both are valid but open for criticism and these two bring a lot of credibility to either side.
Whichever side you come down on, it's one hell of a gruelling ride. Prisoners is two and a half hours long but it feels like it goes on for days. It'll take your heart and break it six ways from Sunday. There's a genuine sense of realism here that makes it all the more difficult to watch. I'm not a father, and I don't even have any young children in my life at all, but this just pulls on some instinct level fears that are hardwired into all of us; Prisoners might be a bit too much for the parents of young kids.
There are a few things that detract a little from the experience. Some things play out a little too much like the crime mystery template. There's one specific thing you'll see in the first act that is framed and lit perfectly then immediately deemed irrelevant. "I wonder if that will become important later on?" asked nobody in the audience with a shred of honesty.
Prisoners isn't the sort of thing you'll see on TV on a Sunday afternoon and watch on a whim in a few years time. You need to be able to sit down and say "Yes, I do want to subject myself to something beautifully made that'll smack my emotions around the room a bit for over two hours".
*(except X-Men. X-Men sucks)
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Because sometimes you just need to come home and see a robot suplex a sea dragon.
Guillermo del Toro directed Pan's Labyrinth, a film that whether you like it or you have to admit has one of the most inventive and creative fantasy world seen in film. In Pacific Rim, GdT explores a different kind of fantasy world. This time though, it's not a Spanish take on dark fairytales, but a Japanese-inspired monster-disaster movie.
Pacific Rim (which, as a side note, is a terrible, terrible name for the film) is set in a nearish future where Earth is being troubled by the occasional invasion from giant aliens. In a different twist though, they don't come from the skies but some weird dimensional rift that's appeared at the bottom of the ocean; they climb out and terrorise pretty much all the cities on the pacific coasts. Mankind, not to be outdone by some finheads, have banded together to build a series of huge robots to fight back and boom we have our film.
That's pretty much it. There isn't a whole lot of depth to this. It's pretty much a Western take on the classic Godzilla films, and that's great! Not everything has to have weaving and intricate plots that take any available turn to create the illusion of being creative. There is a valid point to be made in that there's too little time spent with each character, and they're really simple at that price. There's something like 8 main characters and it doesn't help that each robot has to be piloted by two "rangers" who all seem to get the same amount of attention meaning you don't really get one main character. You do get a little and complete story arc for each character though, and that plays into the film's main message.
It doesn't take a professor to figure out that the main message of Pacific Rim is that "We're all in this together". Despite being a war film, it's all about coming together to achieve things we couldn't individually, from the large scale co-operation between all nations to fight off the outer-space menace to the personal connection that develops between the two pilots at centre stage. We're all broken in little ways, but we can cover each others' backs.
But if you think that's all a bit soppy, Pacific Rim is still just simply fantastic fun. The film's a little long, but at least half of it is made up of actions scenes where it's literally just giant robots and alien monsters beating the shit out of each other in the sea, in the city and on the sea floor. It looks beautiful. Set mainly in-and-around future Hong Kong it's a got a real techno-grunge factor with neon lights and grease everywhere and it inexplicably seems to be always raining for some reason. It's slick, stylish and is just fucking awesome.
Guillermo del Toro knows that he's made a film about giant robots fighting giant aliens and that is all it was. He has essentially made that film that every eleven year old boy would have made had he been given a box full of sugary snacks and $190 million dollars.
Friday, 18 October 2013
Somewhere between Slumdog Millionaire and producing the fantastic opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics Danny Boyle managed to squeeze in the production of Trance. It might be a little apparent that his attention was a little divided, and by that I mean it's no Trainspotting, but it doesn't stop the film from being entertaining.
What we have in Trance is a psychological crime thriller (and depending on your thoughts on hypnotherapy, it might be a little sci-fi). After a robbery at an auction house goes off the rails and the painting goes missing, the inside man who last had his hands on in suffers a bout of amnesia. Looking to fill in the blanks the thieves call in the services of a hypnotherapist and set themselves down a road full of twists, turns, false memories and distorted reality.
Danny Boyle's created something that feels a lot like a more grounded version of Inception. Everything in the film is technically possible if you accept that unlikely things always happen in movies. You get similar dream-like atmosphere but with a lot less of the crazy action. The hypnosis factor draws you in and leaves you guessing at to exactly what's real, what's happening under the trance and what's a false memory. As the film progresses it might be a little too much for some, myself included, and you get to a point where you just throw your hands up and say "I'll just wait 'til the end to figure it out!". Even then there does remain a certain pleasure in just going along with the ride.
There might be a few too many twists and turns along the way, but it gives Boyle ample opportunity to mess with you in another way. From the get go it's never clear whose side you're supposed to be on exactly, and considering everyone in the main cast is some sort of criminal, it makes it easy for allegiances to slide from character to character throughout the film right up until the final conclusion.
Of course, credit for that doesn't just lie with the director though. While the cast might no be quite A list (yet), they give an A rate performance. James McAvoy is one of Britain's biggest upcoming stars at the moment, after making the jump from TV to big pictures in 2007 with Atonement, he's just gone from strength to strength (including what looks like a delightfully sleazy time in Filth). He's fantastic at both ends of the spectrum; at home as much as the snivelling coward as he is the vengeful psychopath he just has a knack for taking characters on a real journey and changing, for better or worse.
Backing McAvoy up are Rosario Dawson (Death Proof) and Vincent Cassel (Black Swan). Dawson takes the lead as the intelligent and scheming Elizabeth Lamb, the supposedly legitimate hypnotherapist enticed by the thought of a payday from the underworld and a break from the monotony of treating over-eaters and smokers every day. Then there's Cassel doing what he does best: being somehow suave and incredibly seedy at the same time as the French ringleader of the heist gone wrong.
The three of them together make for an interesting dance throughout the course of film, each taking centre stage for long enough to play with your head as to who should come out on top, who's in the right and who's actually telling the truth. Trance might not ever be near the top of Danny Boyle's biggest hits, but it'll put you under its spell for an hour and a half and not disappoint.
Friday, 13 September 2013
It is, unfortunately, still a thing to believe that women aren't funny. I'm not sure why this is, but you'll find no shortage of this sort of thing in the world of comedy, and especially so online. Just a quick google will take you straight to highly regarded publications pushing this sort of thing too.
Personally, I just don't get it. Some of my favourite sitcoms are focussed on and also produced by women. Tina Fey's 30 Rock is the only sitcom I've made the effort to watch from start to finish because it's that good, and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec is a hilarious lead. Even as I'm writing this, I've got QI on in the background and Shappi Khorsandi is killing it.
So, on to Orange Is The New Black: a black-comedy/drama set in a women's prison. The (nearly) all female cast is just one of the risky things about OITNB. As outlined above, there's the whole "women aren't funny thing", which is bullshit, but there's the risk of not everyone getting black comedy and then there's the new Netflix model it was released on. OITNB is a Netflix original, a lot like the lauded House of Cards. It was released all at once, ready to be binged or enjoyed at your own leisure.
There were a couple of risks, and straight out the gate I'm not going to say it all completely paid off in droves. I did really enjoy this first series but there are some flaws.
First, the good: It works as a black comedy. As you can imagine, there's a lot of opportunity for darkly funny things to happen in prison. People go a bit stir crazy, some of them are there because they're already crazy and the rules from normal society just plain don't apply any more. The cast fill out the possibilities nicely. Segregated by race, the cliques cover a cross section of criminals. You've got your hillbilly meth head born again Christians, your Russian-headed kitchen crew, the current and former junkies and all the individual "unique" cases inbetween. At the centre of it all there's the fish out of water main character of Piper Chapman. A middle-class, college educated woman about to be married, she comes to prison woefully unprepared after being found guilty of carrying drug money across the border over a decade ago. Taylor Shilling takes on the naive and skittish role well and manages to embody some of the changes that anyone undoubtedly goes through with a stay in a correctional facility.
More good: OITNB works as a drama. The stories that some of these women (well, a few of them are better described as girls) have are genuinely touching and humanising. Either told through flashbacks to the outside world or through the rarer moment of vulnerable honesty between inmates, most of the major characters get fleshed out well enough that you can actually start to care about them, and more than how well they'll be able to set up the next punchline.
The struggle comes from lining up the balance of comedy and drama. As the series goes on it shifts away from the comedy quite heavily. It's a smart move in the end; it's a little difficult to go from a drug overdose to a toilet gag smoothly. But it does shift the tone of the show drastically. At the start OITNB is pretty much 50-50 humour and drama, but towards the end it's just pretty depressing and dark, with moments of levity rather than those of outright comedy. It's still compelling, but it just feels a little inconsistent.
I'd recommend Orange Is The Ne Black to anyone looking for something a little different from their TV entertainment, but it's not going to set the world alight like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. If anything it's worth checking out because there's at lest a handful of characters that real steal the show. The born again methhead with her cultist followers, and the formerly homeless, corn-rowed blonde girl with a throat tattoo and strange sense of honour are two particular standouts.
Wednesday, 11 September 2013
A quick list of some things I like: critically acclaimed films, French women, quirky yet realistic characters.
A quick list of things I don't get: Amélie, the love for Amélie.
It should have been a perfect storm but I just didn't really enjoy Amélie at all. I finally got around to watching it after going through a "Movies like this" list for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which still sits on the throne of my favourite films, so I was expecting to fall in love.
Amélie just stinks to the high heavens of trying way too hard. It's charming, but it's too charming. It's quirky, but it's too quirky. It's whimsical, but it's too whimsical. The only grounding element in the film comes in the neuroses of Amélie herself: an introvert badly damaged by her incompetent parents who finds it hard to properly connect with others. But her broken social skillset is too little to stem the flow of tweeness flowing out of every other character and situation in the film.
I'd be tempted to put it down to a simple difference of culture. Maybe it's just one of those French things that as an uncultured Englishman I'm never going to get? But I recently caught a few episodes of The Returned (a French mystery TV series) and that was beautifully bleak. As you might have already guessed from this review, I should have liked this. I tend to fall in love with the "manic pixie dream girl" characters despite how disgustingly unrealistic they are. Some of my favourite films are Garden State, Eternal Sunshine and Breakfast at Tiffany's (and that isn't easy for a straight, male twentysomething to admit) and was expecting Amélie to slot right in there in next to them but apparently I have a point where I draw the line and say "cut that quirky shit out, you're a grown woman for God's sake".
Thursday, 29 August 2013
A fantasy story with vampires that doesn't make you want to cut yourself.
This 2008 Swedish language film came as part of the little wave of Scandinavian culture that got hijacked by the Anglo-sphere in the last few years. This, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Wallander and The Killing are all things that we've nicked and made, sometimes better and sometimes worse, our own versions of.
Let The Right One In (remade recently as Let Me In) bucks the trend of recent fantasy love story (looking at you Twilight) and doesn't take a glamorous brush and paint the undead as cool, moody and mysterious romantic beings. LTROI is pretty old school in it's approach to vampires, despite the two main characters being 12 year olds.
Oskar is a lonely kid living in a Swedish council estate (although it could double for any eastern bloc hellhole) jumping between his divorced parents and being bullied at school, when a mysterious family moves in next door. He and Eli, the new neighbour's daughter become friends despite their common awkwardness and start themselves off on a quirky little pre-teen love story that seems like a really messed up version of Moonrise Kingdom. Obviously things get a little complicated when secrets start to come out and the blood starts flowing.
This is a great film that pulls no punches. The violence is visceral and gory. The vampires are cursed with horrific lives, not blessed with superpowers and sparkles. The kids are awkward, and not in that cutesy hipster fashion but like properly awkward kids. To put it in a way that sounds really stupid: it's a vampire love-story that feels very grounded in reality.
Sunday, 25 August 2013
Nicolas Winding Refn set the critics and the internet alight in 2011 with the Ryan Gosling led Drive. His artsy take on a crime film stood out against the rest of that year's major releases with it's incredibly slow and deliberate pace. It also stood out somewhat as Refn's most "mainstream" production, if not by much. Drive was slick artistic and reasonably accessible while keeping a tight hold of that arthouse feel. A hell of a lot of people were expecting Drive 2.0. Only God Forgives is not that.
Only God Forgives goes a bit further from the beaten track and is full on arthouse with symbolism and slow-burn intensity coming out the back end. It created a mixed reaction with critics, to put it lightly. During its trip to the world famous Cannes Film Festival it was walked out on and booed in some screenings and came out of other with top critics awarding it perfect scores. The graphic violence and cryptic approach to storytelling understandably splits reactions pretty much down the middle.
From the get-go, OGF sets out its stall a creeping and eerie dynamic. No punches are pulled as we're introduced to Ryan Gosling's Julian and his brother Billy, who are American-born gangsters working the streets of Bangkok fronting as a Muay Thai boxing club. Billy manages to befall a deserving but gruesome fate which brings the brothers' mother as well as a vengeful police lieutenant out of the woodwork and sets them all on a journey of revenge and retribution exploring the nature of sin and forgiveness.
If you're big on hard hitting and compelling dialogue, this film is not the one for you. In a trademark style, Refn's main character here barely speaks (in his 2009 picture Valhalla Rising, the main character doesn't speak at all). Gosling apparently racks up a total of 17 lines in the entirety of OGF. Most of the feeling in the film comes from the physical acting and the beautiful, beautiful use of lighting and set dressing. Not everyone can agree on whether the rest of the film was impressive, but I'd challenge anyone to come up with a good argument for how this films doesn't look good. Deep blacks, broken by soft hues of gold and deep reds, are interspersed with expertly placed neons that lend the entire production the feel of a dreamy acid trip in the seedy backstreets of Thailand.
Major criticisms come in the form of the characters. Many have said they don't feel like people and just seem to represent "ideas" instead. And that's kind of exactly what makes the film a great watch. The three main characters, Julian, his mother and the lieutenant, are all pretty inhuman monsters to varying degrees. The lieutenant is a sin eater: he carries out harsh and brutal punishments on those who deserve it. This allows him to also be the agent of forgiveness. It might just be because I've been watching a lot of Breaking Bad, but just because someone is the main character doesn't mean they're the good guy, and just because the lieutenant is working against Gosling doesn't mean he's the bad guy.
Then you have Gosling. Julian is just completely messed up. There is a very overt Oedipal relationship between him and his mother, and it's clear it's just left him confused and belittled his entire life. This confusion and and inability to see the world in the simple black-and-white of the rest of the cast is why he's our main character.
I came because it was a Gosling (and Refn) movie, but I stayed because of Kristin Scott Thomas' Crystal. I haven't seen her in anything before, and truth be told I only knew she existed because of Jeremy Clarkson's obsession with her on Top Gear, but god damn does she steal the show here. It's a departure from her usual high-class and refined roles. She's a mafia take on Lady Macbeth, and it's brilliant.
Crystal is scary. Not in that "She's clearly a crazy psychopath" kind of way either. There's no sense that's she's crazy or just missing the empathy part of her brain, she's just plain cold and ruthless. There's no veneer, only straight up contempt, disgust and hate and Scott Thomas does it perfectly.
Only God Forgives is not going to make it on many "Best Films" list, but where it does it'll be pretty high up. I'm a sucker for good looking films and this is one of the best visual stories I've seen in a while. It's not Drive 2 by a long shot. It's a trippy, violent and unsettling film. One that I'm very pleased with.