Category Archives: The Film World
Film reviews ahoy!
The summer of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) gets off to a pretty lousy start. With his father otherwise engaged for the sunny months, the timid teenager reluctantly joins his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) on a holiday to the latter’s beach house in Cape Cod. At first alienated and humiliated as he tags along on “spring break for adults”, Duncan eventually finds comfort in a summer job at the local water park, helmed by the carefree Owen (Sam Rockwell). In addition, he gradually begins to form a bond with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb): the daughter of Trent’s next-door neighbour.
This sweet-and-simple premise – paired with the writer-director credits of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – is likely to instil preconceptions that The Way Way Back follows the staple rulebook of indiedom, and surprise-surprise, it does just that. This is bright, familiar film-making with few genuine surprises up its short sleeves, but even so, it savours its simple pleasures with an admirable candidness. There is no pretence to The Way Way Back‘s formula, and as a result, it makes for a delightfully laidback and likeable experience. That’s not to say it’s perfect, with the majority of its laughs appreciative rather than belly-busting, but to a degree, this is all part of its relatable charm. Optimism counters its bittersweet language, and consequently, any qualms with its simplicity or ambiguities are gently worn away as the story unfolds.
Alongside director Alexander Payne, Faxon and Rash helped co-write 2011’s The Descendants, and true enough, there’s more than a hint of that film’s gentle melancholy to The Way Way Back. One could go as far to label this film The Descendants‘ teenage sibling, though this is not meant in a derogatory manner. Rather, both films echo one another in their warmth and structural DNA. The resolutions of both stories – though they each twinkle with a sense of closure – are not concrete, and there are plenty of offscreen elements which are left undeveloped. There are times when plot strands such as these are just aching for further exploration (including a more substantial account of the relationship between Duncan and his parents), but for the most part, leaving all the nitty-gritty details oblique entrenches The Way Way Back‘s less-is-more mentality. There’s just the right amount of every ingredient to form a balanced whole, and besides, as with The Descendants, its real merits reveal themselves slowly over time. Repeat viewings will surely help to highlight its strengths.
Speaking of, alongside its breezy writing and bright settings, The Way Way Back is particularly noteworthy for its cast. James is perfectly anonymous as Duncan: a sullen-faced chap with bruises all over his self-confidence, yet one whose spirit is invigorating when it finally gets the chance to exhibit itself. In addition, Collette simply bleeds pathos as the soft-spoken Pam slowly begins to crumble into helplessness, and Robb makes a great impression from all-too-scant screen-time. Even though the plot concerning her Susanna does feel a little forced, it doesn’t prevent her from remaining welcome company when she appears. The film’s heartbeat is in good hands with such a triumvirate.
Better yet, the film is just as canny with its splashes of comedy, with the ever-dependable Rockwell (seriously, who else could it be?) on firing form throughout. Mixing deadpan deliveries with a sparkling sense of humanity, Rockwell is the film’s ace in the hole, nailing Owen’s dry witticisms in tremendous style. From goofing around on the job (“Is it a homicide?” he asks when informed that a “situation” requires his attention) to simply dispensing worldly advice, he’s a magnetic presence, and makes for the perfect surrogate brother to James’ queasy Duncan. Allison Janney fares just as brilliantly as Betty, the barmy woman next door who strives to recapture her youth while mercilessly laying into her own children.
If one really has to pick holes in The Way Way Back, then there are several to discuss. Its concluding set-piece does overdo things by a few margins, standing as slightly off-kilter and inorganic in relation to its modest story thus far, and again, viewers may find several threads wanting at times. But damn it all, it’s hard to begrudge The Way Way Back such shortcomings when it’s just so damn likeable. With its lazy grins, easygoing nature and a wealth of memorable characters, it boils down to 100 minutes of cinema which deliver everything promised from the outset.
It’s not without its flaws, but by God, it’ll leave you feeling warm. Tingling with nostalgia and with a bittersweet sting in its tail, The Way Way Back makes for a lovely farewell to the sunny season.
Writer-director-producer-animator Neill Blomkamp seemed to spring out of nowhere in 2009, but the auteur has actually been in the game for a while, building a steady portfolio of commercials, shorts and TV series since the 1990s. Honing his directorial chops over such a period allowed him to launch a sneak-attack on Hollywood with the excellent District 9, and – lo and behold – merely weeks after its release, sci-fi had found its latest boy wonder. District 9 was such a critical and commercial firework that anticipation has been sky-high for Blomkamp’s next move: this year’s blockbuster Elysium.
In the same vein as its predecessor, Elysium is based in a grim and grubby alternate reality, this time set 150 years in the future. Decades and decades of conflict have led to a hyper-polarised state of class warfare, between the poor – who live on the overpopulated, over-polluted Earth – and the wealthy, who have been granted citizenship on Elysium: a luxurious and elaborate space station which orbits the poisoned planet. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job, industrial worker Max Da Costa’s (Matt Damon) only hope for survival is making it to Elysium and accessing its state-of-the-art medical facilities. He volunteers to assist the Earth’s underground resistance in return for passage to the space station, but he must also contend with Elysium’s ruthlessly cold Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her top mercenary, Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley): a tough-as-nails badass who is seemingly indestructible.
Visually, Elysium is stunning, and Blomkamp has done marvellously once more in constructing a wholly immersive alternate reality. Earth itself is a thoroughly disturbing place, and the film is riddled with nightmarish visions of dust-caked concrete vistas, all smeared in lurid graffiti. Elysium itself is a whole other story: a beautifully sleek and stylish vessel which is as aesthetically arresting as it is structurally fascinating. Caps off to the production design team, and to Syd Mead in particular, who has added another wondrous futurescape to his booming roster.
We’re given just enough time to admire the alternately harsh and clinical beauty of each world, because the plot itself quickly escalates into a balls-to-the-wall actioner of the 1980s sci-fi mould. The Terminator provides another key point of reference here, as a multi-layered game of cat-and-mouse is set in motion, combined with a race-against-the-clock impetus for Damon’s Max, who is diagnosed with five days to live following his Dr. Manhattan-esque accident. While this does mean we’re treated to some very gritty fight sequences, it does steer the film into very blunt territory, which it never quite manages to escape from.
The film’s political message is surprisingly less overt than that of District 9, but in almost every other department, Elysium squanders subtlety in favour of big, bold moves, which unfortunately isn’t always to its benefit. There are some truly outstanding concepts fuelling the film, and Blomkamp is clearly a man who knows a meaty plotline when he sees one. But here, it’s a case of too many flavours clashing awkwardly, and all these promising ideas soon churn into a mess. Not enough time is devoted to some of the major relationships at the heart of the film, and several of the set-pieces blur past in disorienting fashion. (At one moment it took me a few minutes to realise someone’s face had just been blown off.)
Damon is a robust choice for the protagonist, but Max is something of an anonymous creation, with on-the-nose flashbacks doing little to flesh him out beyond the stock “underdog” hero. As Kruger, Copley is thoroughly menacing, and he gets to relish some very believable moments of badassery. It’s a shame, then, that he’s lumbered with several by-the-numbers villain moments (such as a very forced scene wherein he emphasises his sexual dominance – ugh), and his exaggerated accent walks a tightrope between chilling and amusing. Shockingly, Jodie Foster fails to deliver the goods as the ice-queen Delacourt, instead trading in some clumsy line deliveries, and never fully settling on a single accent for her character.
It was going to take a lot to top District 9, but even outside of such a looming shadow, Elysium stands as another disappointment in this year’s clutch of blockbusters. For all its bite and bluster, its failure to adequately settle on any of its given topics makes it a strangely empty creation. That being said, it gains bonus points for giving us a line for the ages. At the sight of a face mutilated beyond belief, a gravelly South African mercenary grins to his cohort, “he looks pretty fucked up, mate!” The priceless power of the understatement. Apparently, Blomkamp’s next feature-length – entitled Chappie – will have deeper roots in comedy. With material like this, it could suit him nicely.
A plethora of great ideas which sadly don’t gel, instead forming a hodgepodge of blood, sweat and decimated metal. One has to admire Blomkamp’s ambition (and his keen eye for arresting visuals), but his second effort is a big step down when it comes to finesse.
In the sprawling world of cinema, too many sequels with real potential become croppers because of that simple folly: DARKER = BETTER. Mark Millar seemed to trade on this very idea in the Kick-Ass comic-book series, overloading his second collection with some incredibly brutal narrative swerves, most of which felt crowbarred in for the sake of shock value.
Likewise, the film adaptations follow a progression into murkier territory, yet – thankfully – the gradient is less steep than in the comics themselves. Kick-Ass 2 is more brutal in execution (literally) than 2010’s original, with several of its set-pieces bordering on the truly horrific (watch out for an attempted rape scene, and the assassination of a relatively significant figure), but the fight sequences themselves remain exhilarating in all their pulpy, bone-crunching glory.
Tonally, it’s relatively consistent with the original Kick-Ass, but writer-director Jeff Wadlow lacks the nimble touch of his predecessor Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn’s film was a thorough delight: a subversive superhero flick whose limb-slicing hyperactivity never once sacrificed its big, booming heart. Wadlow’s crack at the universe is serviceable, but too often lapses into the kind of ham-fisted clichés which the original so skilfully outmanoeuvred, and consequently, this sequel dearly lacks the infectious likeability of Kick-Ass the first.
An indeterminate amount of time following the fall of Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his empire, Dave Lizewski (played by the now-bruising Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has hung up his wetsuit to return to the monotonous existence of an everyday teenager. Bored stiff by the civilian life, he reconnects with Mindy MacReady (the dependably strong Chloë Grace Moretz) to retrain himself for the vigilante life. When Mindy promises her guardian to put an end to her crime-fighting ways, Dave joins Justice Forever, a ragtag gang of wannabe-superheroes led by the gruff-voiced Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). All the while, however, Kick-Ass’ downfall is being plotted by Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who – under the new alias of The Motherfucker – wants to avenge his father’s death by destroying everything Kick-Ass (aka, Dave) holds dear.
Even from the offset, it’s clear that this film has a lot of moving parts, and unfortunately, there are too many for Wadlow and co. to adequately balance across the lean runtime. It’s easy to forget John Leguizamo’s all-too-brief stint as Chris D’Amico’s subordinate, and a subplot involving Mindy’s time in high school culminates in a gag which teeters on the brink of self-parody. To be frank, the first third of Kick-Ass 2 is appalling, especially when clumsy exposition collides with horribly-executed shifts in plot. For instance, a crucial, tenderly-developed strand from the original film is cruelly done away with in about 30 seconds of screen-time, with minimal character development in the aftermath. Worse still, Chris D’Amico follows a truly repellent arc which begins with killing his own mother, and Dave’s father is given very short shrift in what should be the emotional fulcrum of the entire ordeal.
Naturally, nobody expects an in-depth character study from a film like this. But there is some seriously fertile ground for psychological exploration, which winds up being criminally undervalued and underused. The consequences of the actions of Kick-Ass and co. should have huge ramifications at times, but they’re all glossed over in a flurry to reach the finish-line. Admittedly, this does help maintain the pulse-pounding momentum of the set-pieces, but this ignorance of character study prevents Kick-Ass 2 from transcending into something truly resonant. Emotional bonds are forged from natural feelings of fear and concern, rather than from sharp characterisation. As an audience, we automatically like Lindy Booth’s Night Bitch for three simple reasons: she’s cute, she finds herself in danger, and she’s established as a love interest early on. But beyond that, there’s little to work with, and the same applies to most of the secondary characters, which gives the film a shallow, slightly superficial atmosphere.
In terms of plot, then, it’s a disappointment. But when it comes to supplying sheer visceral thrills, Kick-Ass 2 is an unbridled success. There’s a genuinely electrifying takedown on a prostitution ring which allows Carrey to dazzle, and after its awkward first act, the whole film pivots when Chris D’Amico visits his imprisoned uncle. From there on out, the stakes are raised tenfold, and a sense of real danger permeates the remainder of the film. Surprises are in store (both pleasant and truly shocking), and the second half allows some of the film’s stronger assets to shine. Donald Faison is wonderful as Doctor Gravity: a more personable hero than the Colonel, who gracefully brings a sense of wide-eyed excitement to the mix, and Olga Kurkulina gives Mother Russia a vicious brusqueness which works a treat.
On the whole, this is the very definition of a mixed bag, and one which will leave many viewers feeling conflicted. Its weaknesses are countered by a primal desire for mayhem: an equation which ends somewhere highly frustrating. It’s tough to summarise everything that’s right and wrong about Kick-Ass 2, but once the dust has settled and Millar’s next volume is released, perhaps we’ll be able to judge it more definitively. For now, though, take it for what it is: a skewed sequel which thrills, if not enthrals.
Giddily entertaining, yet horrifically brutal; underwritten yet arresting… Perhaps fittingly, given its subject matter, Kick-Ass 2 is a schizophrenic mess, as shocking as it is… well, shocking.
Aside from his own personal slumps, the character of Alan Gordon Partridge has enjoyed quite the capacious career. From his first incarnations on early 1990s radio shows On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You to two BBC series of the deliciously cringeworthy I’m Alan Partridge in 1997 and 2002, as well as countless spin-offs and guest appearances, Alan has amassed his fair share of experience as an entertainer. And thank heavens he’s retained such shelf-life across two decades, because this bullying, socially inept shit is such a rich comic creation, who wholeheartedly survives the leap to the big screen.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa finds Alan (Steve Coogan) trundling along in his usual existence, still jockeying his Mid-Morning Matters show on North Norfolk Digital Radio. However, when the station is taken over by a multinational conglomerate, the proposed alterations ruffle a few feathers amongst the employees. When Alan gatecrashes an executive meeting in an attempt to butter up his new bosses, he notices the head honchos umming and aahing over the decision to axe one of two radio presenters: himself, or the embittered Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney).
After intervening, Alan saves his own skin by throwing Pat to the dogs, but consequently, Pat stages a coup, taking several of the station’s employees hostage and barricading them inside the recording studios. Alan is approached by the police to serve as a mediator between his ex-colleague and the armed forces, which pushes Alan into dangerous territory, but also back into the media spotlight.
As with I’m Alan Partridge, there’s a definite predilection on behalf of the writers to place comedy above story in the list of priorities. Yet while such a strategy befits the confines of a thirty-minute episode (throughout the television series, the lack of progression provides a prime backdrop for the humour), in Alpha Papa, the experience feels quite scattershot. Naturally, nobody’s expecting world-beating triumphs of dialogue, but the script does seem overly keen to zip from punchline to punchline, with romantic and moral progressions skimmed over as quickly as possible, as if the writers were anxious to ensure that enough chuckles were squeezed into 90 minutes to appease fans.
Thankfully, in that area at least, Alpha Papa is textbook. As is expected, the biggest laughs of the film stem from Alan’s archetypal buffoonery, and regardless of the daft mechanics of the siege itself, the Alan-centric set-pieces are the moments which linger longest in the memory. Particular highlights include a plummy rendition of ‘Always on My Mind’, the build-up to an impromptu jingle recording, and the brand of typically hilarious radio chatter which has long graced the Partridge mythos.
In the pseudo-icon’s wake, we are also given time with faces old and new. Rightfully, the endearingly browbeaten Lynn (Felicity Montagu) gets some time to shine, but sadly, Michael (Simon Greenall) is short-changed, with only a handful of moments granted to the Geordie mainstay. It’s a shame, because his brief appearances are arguably some of the best in the film. Colm Meaney fares slightly better, lending the supposedly antagonistic Pat a human, sympathetic edge which makes him a surprisingly touching asset, and one which could have done with further exploring. Other new ideas and developments are present and correct, though they do tend to blur into the background, with the film’s final moments spent in the service of a narrative strand which never took off to begin with.
Truth be told, as a film in its own right, Alpha Papa is found wanting on several fronts, with its narrative arcs threadbare and forced, alongside a plot which soon pales to riskless. The whole structure does feel more like a serviceable chassis to allow Coogan maximum gurning time: an affliction much better concealed in the likes of I’m Alan Partridge. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that even when the story runs out of puff, Partridge himself doesn’t. Two decades on from his first appearance, and up on the big screen for the first time, Alan still has the magic.
The story itself feels too slight and undercooked to really make its own mark, but it’s clear that the rib-tickling capabilities of the man himself are very much intact. Kiss his Siegeface!
Never mind the expectations of the wider critical and commercial playing fields. The World’s End has the misfortune to be burdened with a huge personal expectation. Namely, it follows in the mighty footsteps of my favourite comedy film of all time: Shaun Of The Dead. As the apparent closer to the alleged “trilogy” of Cornetto films, a lot was riding on Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (as well as the larger cast and crew, of course) to deliver a resplendent final bite of the ice-cream.
But praise Angel: they’ve managed it. Somehow, The World’s End manages to stand simultaneously as the team’s most mature and most unhinged caper. Beneath the breathless, madcap surface bubbles a striking darkness, exposed in a handful of storytelling twists and revelations. The result is a pleasantly surprising viewing experience; one which isn’t entirely seamless, but crackles with a gleeful energy and a juicy gag-rate nonetheless.
Local “legend” and lunatic Gary King (Simon Pegg) attempts to recapture “the best night of [his] life” 20 years after its passing. Corralling the five adrift members of his school gang, he returns them all to the sleepy suburbia of Newton Haven to try and conquer the legendary Golden Mile pub crawl. Having failed to successfully reach all 12 of the locales two decades ago, Gary is determined to make amends this time by making it all the way to the final, titular establishment – or die trying. Unfortunately, the route is complicated when the group realise that the town is in the grip of a strange and sinister force: one which could well bring doom to the human race – not to mention the conquest of the Golden Mile.
Fittingly for its premise, being back with the creative triumvirate is like being reunited with old friends. Wright-Pegg-Frost films inhabit a beautifully distinguishable sphere, wherein that peculiar strain of British quaintness is both celebrated and lampooned at once. From the tics and quirks of its semblance of characters (tea-making, pub-worshipping, “I ran it under a cold tap”) to chuckling at ‘Village Of The Year’ awards, much of the comedy of this series of films has stemmed from deft, wholesome ribbing, as opposed to cheap gags. And indeed, the quintessential Englishness of its composition is a large factor in making The World’s End so damn enjoyable.
After all, regardless of its sci-fi bent, it’s clear that this is a film made with the impetus to entertain above anything else. And on that front, it takes home the cuddly monkey. The World’s End is an absolute hoot, packing delights in the form of snappy cameos, sumptuous dialogue (“you’re drinking fucking rain!”) and some classic slapstick grace notes. It’s a relief, too, that past favourites don’t become a point of indulgence, with the script kept lean and fresh for the most part, save for a couple of cracking (and well-earned) throwback gags.
A real blessing comes in the form of the ensemble cast, all of whom are absolutely dazzling, easing into their collaborative roles with a chemistry that can’t be faked. Pegg himself has a ball of a time as the perpetual loser Gary, while Frost undergoes a joyous transformation from unflappable buzz-kill to a drunken cocktail of fury. Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan are equally delightful company to be around, with the latter two players stealing more than a few scenes as the deadpan Oliver and soft-spoken Peter respectively.
In terms of its stylistics, it’s easy to see where the hyper-kinetics of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World have rubbed off on Wright’s (already-fizzing) flair. Such skills are most visible in a couple of tremendously lucid fight sequences, which supply the same deliriously giddy thrills as the latter half of Hot Fuzz. Wright’s talent has blossomed steadily ever since the Spaced years, and it’s remarkable to witness his approach becoming truly distinguishable and versatile. Tellingly, the only moments where The World’s End doesn’t visually glow are in its CGI-heavy passages, some of which aren’t quite smooth enough to cover the herky-jerkiness of the weaker effects.
This is one of several shortfalls which do hamper the film, and it must also be admitted that The World’s End doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors. It misses the start-to-finish perfection of Shaun Of The Dead, and it lacks the seamless genre-play of Hot Fuzz; perhaps as a consequence of trying to fit too many ideas into 109 minutes of screen-time. Some aspects feel a little undercooked, including a subplot involving a love triangle between Gary, Steven (Considine) and Rosamund Pike’s Sam. In strands such as this one, the emotional tug of The World’s End feels constricted by its busyness elsewhere.
In addition, when the big twists do arrive, several of them are more than a little jarring, to the point that, when some of the extremes are revealed, the whole thing seems utterly ridiculous. Thankfully, the entertainment factor keeps everything in check for the most part, but sometimes it’s hard to keep up (and even stomach) the film’s escalation towards its colossal conclusion. The final half-hour or so is so outrageous and outlandish in tone that some viewers will find themselves completely dislocated from what originally begins as a very straightforward comedy flick.
But ultimately, interior logic has never been crucial to the successes of each Cornetto offering. There’s no point in questioning a zombie apocalypse or a murky Neighbourhood Watch Alliance when the comedy is as ripe as this, and even though The World’s End does push the envelope much, MUCH further than anything previous, its shortcomings gradually fade away in the afterglow of what is essentially a wild, raucous thrill-ride, filled-to-foaming with quotable goodness. There are flaws for plenty to pick over once the credits have rolled and the whole trilogy is fully digested, but the bottom line is this: you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more entertaining slice of cinema this summer.
Drink up, let’s Boo Boo.
The World’s End is a frickin’ hilarious slice of madness, providing a satisfactory conclusion to the much-loved “Cornetto Trilogy”. And even if it’s not quite fried gold, we’ll always have the disableds.
Although it is often more prudent to leave one’s baggage at the door when reviewing new releases, with each passing year it becomes harder and harder to judge the films of Pixar Animation Studios without recalling the company’s prolific track record. However, on this occasion, it feels necessary to consider Monsters University in light of the studio’s current stature in the eyes of fans and critics.
To the chagrin of some of my course-mates, I will defend last year’s Brave to the last gasp. Granted, it is not a masterpiece to stand alongside the likes of Up or the Toy Story series, but it did demonstrate that Pixar were still capable of crafting original products, which are impressive in both ambition and emotional scope. For all its flaws, Brave had a fire in its belly and a strong human resonance beneath its flair, which helped to steady – if not entirely vindicate – the good ship Pixar after the disappointment of 2011’s Cars 2. The latter felt so forced and rote in execution that one couldn’t help but worry that the studio had begun to focus on commercial gain over creative adventure.
Thankfully, Monsters University (the debut full-length of director Dan Scanlon) fares better than Cars 2, not least because of two reasons. For one, the characters (and mythologies) that we are returning to are much more likeable than Lightning McQueen’s universe; and secondly, Monsters University makes itself easier to embrace (and justify) by offering itself as a prequel, rather than a straight-up sequel. Let’s face it, even the most diehard of Cars fans would have to admit that – even before its sequel’s opening credits had rolled – the franchise had already run out of road. Monsters University, on the other hand, rearranges the formula by turning backwards, to enhance the tableaus behind the beloved characters of Mike Wazowski and James ‘Sulley’ Sullivan. It allows for an intriguing exploration of these characters’ histories, and also gives the studio a meaty playground in which to work: the sprawling life of university.
After a fateful school visit to Monsters, Inc., wide-eyed youngster Mike makes it his life mission to become a professional “scarer”. Applying himself through his education, he bags a place at the prestigious Monsters University, wherein he enrols in the Scare Program. Naturally-gifted hotshot Sulley becomes a quick rival to the bookish cyclops, and the clashes between the two come to a dramatic head, resulting in them both being removed from the course. The film then follows the ol’ team-up routine as the pair join forces to reclaim their positions.
As per usual, the animation itself is delightful. The film’s cartoonish, rainbow-coloured palette sparkles with vivacity, augmented nicely with some top-notch voice work. The chemistry of John Goodman and Billy Crystal allows the central bond of Mike and Sulley to shine once again, and many of the new characters are invested with such panache that they become easily enjoyable company. Particular plaudits go to Helen Mirren (as the acid-tongued Dean Hardscrabble) and Charlie Day (playing the shady student Art), both of whom have great fun bringing some fresh blood to the table.
In addition, the film’s light, loose tone offers some great comedic potential: an area which is perhaps where Monsters University finds its strongest rhythm. A particular early highlight is found in the origin of Randall Boggs’ antagonistic squint, and the trials of the “Scare Games” offer a rich vein of slapstick and animated quirks which imbue the film with a kinetic excitement.
However, such pleasant fun can’t distract from the fact that, when it comes to emotional breadth, Monsters University feels very stunted. Not because its message is invalid, but because it is delivered in a manner both heavy-handed and predictable. In the crucial moments where Monsters University should flower into something rich and touching, it stalls, failing to draw any kind of rewarding connection with its audience. And consequently, for all its merits elsewhere, it is this sub-par emotional arc which reduces Monsters University to something which feels superfluous. Without anything substantial on which to hang its gags, once the film’s tale is told, there is little to entice a second viewing.
Entertaining but lightweight, Monsters University fails to capitalise on Brave’s progressive trajectory for Pixar Animation Studios. Hopefully next year’s The Good Dinosaur will prove that the animation titans still have something fresh and relevant to say, but with Finding Dory and talks of further sequels in the pipeline, one can’t help but fret that these once-invincible players are reaching a point of creative crisis.
Monsters University is certainly enjoyable, and as follow-ups go, it easily surpasses Cars 2. However, several years ago, it would seem unthinkable to regard a Pixar creation as little more than fluff, and Monsters University edges dangerously close to that line.
To avoid beating about the bush, Trance is a total mindfuck. In the wake of what was apparently Danny Boyle’s most cherished project thus far – the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics, of course – he has returned to the filmic world with a headspinning tale of deception, buried memories, and guys getting shot in the tunk. (As you do after taking the ‘Queen’ skydiving.) Beginning with a seemingly simple tale of hypnotherapy that rapidly spirals out of control into something much more unsettling, Trance is not easy to embrace at first. It’s a prickly and volatile watch; one which darts along at a jittery speed and taunts the viewer to try and keep up with its ever-shifting array of ideas.
To settle his excessive gambling debts, art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) cooks up a deal with criminal kingpin Franck (Vincent Cassel). With Simon as an inside man, Franck and his cronies attempt the heist of a £25,000,000 Goya painting, but when the canvas itself goes AWOL, Simon comes under heavy fire from the snarling syndicate. The problem is, after taking a pretty nasty crack to the noggin during the caper, his mind is wiped of the events surrounding the heist. Cue the employment of hypnotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to try and coax Simon’s memories back from the brink. But what is eventually unearthed goes far, far beyond a single shady dealing, and the mysteries only begin to pile up further.
The finished product is perhaps best compared to a film such as Inception, with its high-wire “all-in-your-head” concepts, but Trance is much more slippery. Detached and treacherous to the point of appearing quite cold at times, the tension and confusion is cranked up with every passing minute, until Boyle finally decides to unscrew the gasoline in an explosive display to match last summer’s fireworks. A lot of viewers may be put off by Trance‘s unapologetically brusque nature, but it’s definitely worth sticking with, because it overflows with enough intrigue to keep it rattling in your mind for hours afterwards. Boyle revels in grotesque imagery and none-more-black comedy, which comes in handy whenever the plot becomes overly sticky or claustrophobic.
Visually, it’s a treat: coated in steely silvers and inky blacks, the London represented here slants between a flashy, luxurious sprawl and a noirish world of shadows. It’s the perfect playhouse in which to let loose McAvoy and his paranoid cohorts, all of whom share the same inherent relationships with greed, fear, and lust. With most of these characters so cagey and tight-lipped, the performances are suitably calculated: McAvoy himself plays the jumpy, paranoid Simon to a tee, while in a neat surprise, Cassel steals the show as the syndicate’s menacing (but importantly, not monstrous) leader.
Trouble is, such a threatening atmosphere results in the characters not being all that likeable, though whether or not that adds to the ambiguity of the whole story is up for debate. At least until the grand denouement, a number of the central figures come across as nothing less than unsympathetic, occasionally flat enigmas, wrapped up in an ever-shifting plot which never pauses to catch its own breath. Consequently, there are frequent moments when Trance seems rather joyless: a glassy-eyed creation a little too proud of its own cleverness.
Yet, to return to Christopher Nolan once more, there are elements of Memento in Trance’s veins too, and as the whole picture gradually unpeels, there are heady shocks to be found. It’s not consistent in its quality, and it could do with shading its world a little more thoroughly, but you can’t deny the intelligence and bravura behind this film.
It might be harder to swallow than his other recent outings, but Boyle’s latest is impossible to ignore. Instead, it plays the long game, keeping its cards close to its chest until its explosive final third. Amid all the confusion – and frustrations – of its mind-bending structure, Trance plays hard, fast, and sinister.
It’s time to confess: my time management skills are diabolical.
Over the past two-and-a-bit months, I’ve fallen far behind the curve on this blogging malarkey. Since the curtains were raised on 2013, countless films that I’ve wanted to absorb, and stacks of albums that I’ve wanted to put to my ears have eagerly made themselves available. Unfortunately, though, this year has decided that it’s going to be crazily stressful, and as a result, I’ve not been able to soak up half of the amount of new releases that I’ve wanted to so far. And, to really rub salt into the wound, I’ve had even less time to focus on the art of Quotesponging for a while. I could reasonably argue that this is due to overbearing university work, but really, that’d be dealing in half measures. Truth is, I can procrastinate like a bastard. And series three of Breaking Bad is really, really good.
So, apologies for being very slow this year thus far, and for missing out on full reviews of many of 2013’s early big hitters. Still, better late than never, I suppose, so to tidy up some loose ends, here are a handful of condensed reviews for films which I didn’t manage to fully address earlier this year. Also, given that each of these films was rather helpfully Oscar-nominated in at least one field apiece, they are still arguably relevant enough to be granted listing on this here blog.
Life Of Pi
(Ang Lee, 20th Century Fox, 2012)
My ‘Big Summer Read’ of 2012 was Yann Martel’s beautifully-sculpted tale of a young man and the sea (and his tiger, and his assorted faiths). Screenwriter David Magee wrung a tight, respectful screenplay from Martel’s prose, and with Ang Lee’s keen visual eye watching over all, Life Of Pi was able to make the leap from page to screen with considerable aplomb – not to mention a hell of a lot of guts. Technically flawless, watching this film is like leafing through an eye-popping picture book, with its visceral dazzle matched by a platform for interpretative weight.
Major props should be given to Suraj Sharma, whose performance as the teenage protagonist serves as the perfect anchor for such an ambitious project. Sharma’s brave, expansive portrayal of Pi – and his interaction with a (staggeringly-rendered) CGI beast – adds a fierce humanity to what could have been an unwieldy disaster. Even though it still does lack the intimacy and some of the wilder touches of Martel’s novel, Lee’s Life Of Pi is refreshing and bounteous enough to leave me more than satisfied. Here’s to thinking big.
(Quentin Tarantino, Columbia Pictures, 2012)
Whatever your stance on the mouthiest director working today, there’s no doubting that Quentin Tarantino’s films always have the power to jolt. In light of the media firestorm surrounding his latest venture, I went into Django Unchained expecting something nuclear, especially in the wake of the marvellous Inglourious Basterds (which remains my favourite ‘tino film thus far). And yet, I couldn’t help but walk away from Django Unchained with a slight feeling of anticlimax. It’s certainly a great film, packing in some top-notch characterisation and more than a fair helping of badassery, but there was something about it which left me wanting more – even if criticisms have been levelled at its indulgent runtime.
It boasts an intriguing set-up, heralded with some of the auteur’s finest creations yet: the intensely likeable Dr. King Schultz (Tarantino could well have earned the Oscar simply on the basis of conceiving of a bounty-hunter-cum-dentist), the disquietingly charming Calvin Candie, and of course, the title hero himself, whose arc soars above the entire thing, ending with one of the best final kiss-offs this side of Robert Mitchum. Even Tarantino’s appalling cameo ended with him getting blown to bits, so that’s got to be appreciated.
But for all of its strengths, Django Unchained still doesn’t quite sit as comfortably with me as the majority of the director’s previous works. Naturally, it’s a very wordy film, but with the exception of the paralysingly tense dining-room scene, there are few which I can really pull out which I would happily add to my top ten Tarantino moments. For all its panache and vigour in choice sequences, there really is no avoiding the fact that Django Unchained is something of a mess. Still, with supreme performances from DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and of course, The Waltz, what an enjoyable mess it is.
(Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox, 2012)
Despite scooping surprisingly few baldies at the Oscar ceremony in February, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a towering achievement which finds its sexagenarian director back to his assured peak. Although it does creak from time to time with its dialogue-heavy framework, this kinda-biopic is kept well-oiled with deft humour and an intimate, profound portrayal of a number of crucial players in Abraham Lincoln’s inner sphere.
True to its title, Lincoln is very much grounded in characters rather than in actions, even if a pivotal moment for the United States Constitution rests at the crux of it all. We are given a warmly human account of the President himself, with all his well-bottled personal troubles examined under Spielberg’s steady gaze, perhaps best demonstrated in Daniel Day-Lewis’ one-on-one scenes with Sally Field. Both deliver masterful turns, with Field’s blistering anguish set at odds with her husband’s tempered aura of calm. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader add some spiky flavours to the mixture, with the former bagging some of the best lines of dialogue we’re likely to hear all year as he spits pithy insults at the Democrat party’s blithering gaggle of stiffs.
True, Lincoln can be a bit of an exhausting experience to sit through: it’s very dense and from time to time its magic does clam up with a few pacing issues. But on the whole, it’s a majestic, impressive feat of filmmaking from a talent we’ve come to miss in the last few years. Flanked by a heavyweight cast, and with John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński providing that extra sparkle, Spielberg is still going strong.
(Rich Moore, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2012)
It’s not perfect, but Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s best offerings of recent years, if only on the basis of its concept and breathtaking visual flair. Heavily – but pleasantly – indebted to the bubblegum videogames of yesteryear, Wreck-It Ralph is filled with witty humour and in-jokes, but mercifully, it never sags into obsequiousness, instead bringing its own flavours of fun to the table as well, embodied in a plethora of endearing characters. The title character is an entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt lug, given life by John C. Reilly’s wearied tones, and even Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) isn’t as annoying as the trailer would have her seem.
When it comes to plot and structure, it does become overly zippy, occasionally feeling as though the filmmakers felt overwhelmed by the amount of options open to them on such a project. As a result, they’re left unsure of which way to turn, and the second half of the film does career through countless avenues rather haphazardly. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be charmed by the clear enthusiasm and heart that was obviously poured into this film. Bright and bonkers, Wreck-It Ralph is a breath of fresh air to the realm of family animation, even if it didn’t quite bag that statue.
(Ben Affleck, Warner Bros., 2012)
Who’d have thought that the man once known for the bomb that is Gigli would go on to direct a Best Picture winner? Stranger things have happened, of course, but Ben Affleck’s transformation from pesky pretty boy to Hollywood heavyweight is enough to prompt a good eye-rubbing. In light of Argo, his directed productions so far resemble well-played moves in a greater game: 2007’s Gone Baby Gone garnered the attention, and 2010’s The Town cemented Affleck’s chops as a man with a rapidly ameliorating skill set, with his credits including director, writer and actor.
However, it’s with Argo that Affleck has made his claim for greatness, and the world has responded loud and clear. Although it’s still a criminal oversight that he was snubbed a crack at Best Director, Affleck’s third feature has achieved a type of crossover appeal, grossing five times its budget as well as receiving plaudits up and down the award tables. It’s easy to see why, considering the engrossing and distressing circumstances of its subject matter, alongside its remarkable power to entertain. Argo is not only nail-bitingly tense, it’s also frequently hilarious, poking fun at the (true-to-life, lest we forget) ridiculousness of the fake-film scenario in which the CIA invested their final hopes for the salvation of six American hostages.
The concept and performances are initially what hook you in, with Affleck (and his dashing ’70s beard) supported by a tight collection of greats, including the ever-reliable Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin’s gleefully impudent film producer. But what really lodges in the mind is Affleck’s technical assurance. Argo is studded with ambitious set-pieces and reconstructions, some of which will have viewers blown away at their construction and execution. Special mention should go to the opening assault on Tehran’s United States embassy.
Yes, it eschews some of the smaller facts and a fully authentic feel for that big, sweeping ending, which probably didn’t pan out the way it does onscreen. But, hey, although it does resemble one at times, Argo doesn’t outright claim to be a documentary. Instead, it offers up an exhilarating, cathartic experience, laced with political truths and one big confirmation: Affleck the Director has well and truly landed.
As Shaun Of The Dead has shown, everybody loves a good rom-zom-com. And as the all-devouring Twilight franchise conversely proved, that fondness isn’t quite as ubiquitous in the wider world of ‘undead’ romance tales. Nevertheless, it would seem that filmmakers everywhere are still capable of finding enough fresh blood in this topic’s veins with which to make new instalments to the canon.
Jonathan Levine is the latest to try his hand at an undead love story by adapting Warm Bodies, the sleeper-hit novel by Seattle author Isaac Marion. I haven’t personally read Marion’s novel, but I have heard that it’s a little more cutting than its big-screen interpretation, featuring more (ahem) mature themes, as well as a rather more ambiguous ending. However, while Levine’s Warm Bodies isn’t as consistent or emotionally sharp as his previous outing (2011’s 50/50), it remains a fairly strong slice of zombified entertainment.
The plot is sturdy in its simplicity: an unspecified apocalypse has swept the United States of America, and the surviving humans have taken refuge within a huge walled city. Outside the perimeter, zombies prowl the decaying landscape, spending their afterlives groaning, eating whatever brains they can find, and generally being bored stiff. A teenage noggin-nibbler (Nicholas Hoult), who ends up taking the handle “R”, pines for a change of pace, which happily comes his way in the form of human lass Julie (Teresa Palmer). When a small group of human dispatches are ambushed by zombies, R finds himself chewing the brain (and thus ingesting the memories) of Julie’s boyfriend Perry. Consequently, he falls in love with the young lady, and takes her back to his ‘lair’, sheltering her from the other mindless drones keen to feast on her cerebrum.
From there, it’s a wonderfully off-kilter take on the classic ‘winning-her-heart’ formula, with a few curveballs thrown in its runtime. The overall delivery is delightfully sweet and simple, playing up the awkwardness of Marion’s bizarre scenarios, and serving up some knowing winks to zombie folklore with some snappy dialogue. Rather than succumbing to moody posturing or gothic melodrama, Levine keeps things light and breezy for the bulk of the film, making for a surprisingly identifiable central relationship, weighted with a delicate pathos. That, and a pretty solid soundtrack.
Hoult and Palmer both flower in the two lead roles. Given that – hey – one of them’s playing a dead guy, they don’t exactly sparkle with chemistry, per se, but there is definitely a warm, easy presence between the two leads which lends the film a tender charm. The laughs in their romance are pleasingly understated, with R’s more humanistic voiceover giving some real depth to his groany physical manifestation. Special mention should also go to Rob Corddry, who is a riot in the role of fellow zombie M. With his deadpan (pun kinda intended) delivery, he secures a lot of Warm Bodies’ biggest laughs, providing a welcome shot in the arm to the film’s funny bone in choice moments. It’s a shame that the same sense of fun didn’t rub off on John Malkovich, who plays Julie’s militarist father so straight that he ends up feeling as flat and lifeless as his zombie adversaries.
Beyond Mr Malkovich, however, there are several more itchy issues which do sour the overall effect of the film. The antagonistic forces – an unruly clan of skeletons, given the unfortunate label of ‘Bonies’ – are rather poorly realised, both conceptually, and visually. The latter issue becomes more of a gripe, to be honest, with some incredibly ropey CGI work marring some otherwise rather menacing showdown sequences. In addition, Warm Bodies sags in pace lethargically from time to time, due to its relatively laidback narrative arc, and the re-jigged ending does come off as a little bit tacked-on.
Warm Bodies is not a masterstroke of comedic dynamism, nor does it boast a top-drawer structure. What it is, however, is a witty, affable, and – yes – warm slice of popcorn entertainment. Give it a chance: you may find yourself enjoying it more than you’d anticipate.
It’s nothing remarkable, and it’s a little limp in parts, but Warm Bodies does present a surprisingly likeable love story, with its two superb leads weaving a delightful charm.
The year is 1949, we’re deep in the heart of Los Angeles, and Sean Penn and Josh Brolin are whacking each other like scrapping schoolmates. Welcome to Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s third directorial bow; a film which marks a change in pace following his previous comedic outings. After attracting attention with the cracking Zombieland and the relatively competent 30 Minutes Or Less, Fleischer has upped his game for Warner Bros. in the form of Gangster Squad: a slick, glam beast which boasts a smoking cast of A-Listers and an inflated budget of $60m. With such promising elements in place, and with the hype nicely building thanks to a sleek marketing campaign, The Coolest Film Of 2012 looked primed and ready.
Unfortunately, things haven’t been as smooth as all that. For one, production was delayed in summer when a whole scene had to be cut and replaced in the wake of the tragic Aurora cinema shootings. Gangster Squad’s release date was thus bumped back to early 2013, allowing the hype to swell even higher in the meantime. Additionally, if you weren’t bedazzled by the ice-cool trailers and teasers, the problems inherent to its construction may have started to stick out. From seeds of fact, a bombastic tale has been sewn, and while dosing the material with glitz and glamour, Fleischer and co. seem to have become a little too carried away, reducing what should have been a lean, punchy crime thriller into a rather flat, generic gangster flick which doesn’t offer much beyond its surface gloss.
Real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has got LA by the balls, commanding a vast empire with the only uncorrupted police factions too scared to touch him. LAPD Chief Bill Parker (a worryingly gravelly Nick Nolte) finally decides to take action – from behind his desk, of course – by hiring the straight-up Sergeant John O’Mara to assemble an undercover police unit. This ‘gangster squad’ have one simple aim: to bring down Cohen in any way they can. If this all sounds a little bit like The Untouchables, it is: expect stakeouts in seedy downtown bars, a criminal mastermind none too pleased about the shift in authority, and a hearty helping of firepower.
Speaking of the latter, it must be said that Gangster Squad does provide plenty of bang for your buck. Penn himself is a menacing presence indeed, snarling and snapping his way through criminal patter and occasionally erupting in volatile bursts of anger. His Cohen may not be perfectly formed, but there’s a magnetism to his performance, which serves the film well as it builds to its reckless climax. It’s a shame that – several exceptions aside – the heroes aren’t nearly as engaging.
It’s possible that this is down to Will Beall’s screenplay. His first real stab at a Hollywood film shows patches of promise, but by and large he leans heavily on generic clichés which sap the film’s energy. Few of the actors are granted roles to really sink their teeth into, and it does feel like such a waste of talent to see the likes of Emma Stone and Josh Brolin saddled with such stock parts to play. Stone looks ravishing as ever as Cohen’s moll, but she never once has a chance to serve as anything more than eye candy. Likewise, while Brolin invests O’Mara with a steely conviction and a moody growl, there’s nothing setting his protagonist apart from the crowd.
Thankfully, the ever-reliable Gosling is often close at hand to weave his magic. He elevates the film as the drawling Jerry Wooters, treading his way around the script’s potholes with a deft touch and opening up a big old tin of Badass when he finally reaches for his sidearm. Either Beall’s characterisation skills finally coalesced here, or Gosling just has a gift with the material, because whenever Wooters is on screen, Gangster Squad flies. That’s not something which can be said of the remaining squad members, whose stock roles (guy sharp with a knife; guy sharp with a gun; junior cop who’s barely even in it) prevent otherwise able actors from making their presence felt.
As for the action, although Fleischer’s fondness for slo-mo has been apparent since Zombieland, his temptations finally rush into overdrive this time around, with several of Gangster Squad’s action sequences worthy of Zack Snyder himself. Lighters flicker to life in extreme close-up, bullets tumble to the ground balletically, and in one (hilarious) case, a bauble bursts apart in a shower of golden splinters. It’s all too much, especially considering that elsewhere, the director shows potential: the tension prior to a Chinatown shootout is handled nicely, and on the occasions that RyGo gets his hands dirty, it can become genuinely exhilarating. But when the bulk of the film’s action is dealt with in such a ham-fisted way, it comes across as self-indulgent and bloated rather than stirring. The climax is a boxing match? What?! No! Just shoot the fucker!
When all’s been said, whether you find yourself enjoying its slick action stylings or chuckling at its edifice, there’s no denying that Gangster Squad is an entertaining romp: whether intentionally or not, it will leave you grinning at least a couple of times over its course. If only it didn’t take itself so seriously, perhaps it would be more of a hoot than it’s actually turned out to be.
Gangster Squad is an unconditional triumph of style over substance. Deft writing and sharp characterisation are off the table, but even so, you’ll probably indulge in a whoop or two at some point here.