Monday, 1 July 2013

'World War Z', 'This is the End', 'A Field in England' and 'Frances Ha': review round-up

Before I get to the reviews, I should (for once) make an effort to plug the Live at the Essoldo Cinema Podcast - the latest episode of which saw Toby and I joined by our friend Craig Ennis and director Ben Wheatley, to discuss his upcoming film 'A Field in England' (reviewed below). You can download that conversation here. Whilst you're there, check out earlier episodes of "The Essoldo", which launched earlier this year from the ashes of Splendor Cinema.

So... reviews:

'World War Z' - Dir. Marc Forster (12A)

I can only put the relatively kind reception this film has received from critics down to severely diminished expectations. It is profoundly terrible, but maybe not in the car crash fashion everybody had been primed to expect. Shot back in the summer of 2011, and subjected to numerous script changes and re-shoots since then, 'World War Z' was shaping up to be a disaster of notorious proportions: this generation's 'Waterworld' or 'Ishtar'. And it isn't that - at all. In fact, as I write, it's number one at the international box office and, whilst it's apparently still got a way from being profitable for Paramount, not any sort of box office disaster story. But it is completely and utterly rubbish - a film genuinely without redeeming qualities of any sort.

Terrible CGI (it's all helicopter shots of unconvincing computer-generated crowds, flocking through various big cities), non-existent action scenes (the climax involves a nap, a monologue, some meningitis, a can of Pepsi and interminable scenes of staring at a fairly docile zombie), thinly drawn characters (what is Brad Pitt's vital, most-necessary-man-on-Earth UN job supposed to be anyway?), gaping holes in internal logic (zombies that can topple city walls and push over buses, but can't get past a pile of office desks?), dubious politics (peaceful cohabitation between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem attracts the zombies!), the worst-written child characters ever ("I'm scared!", "I need my blanket!"), plot threads that go, literally, nowhere ("my family aren't safe!!!"... um, well they seem OK) and... I could go on.

It's bad. It's a waste of your time. Writing any more about it would constitute a waste of my time.

'This is the End' - Dir. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (15)

I've written here before, probably numerous times, that it's very difficult to review all-out comedies (as opposed to comedy-dramas), in that whether or not the film succeeds ultimately comes down to one question: "did it make you laugh"? Comedy is probably the most hit and miss genre out there, when you think about it, because there's usually nothing else going on but a string of gags and, if they don't work for you, there's usually nothing else there that's going to keep you entertained. In fact, being in a room full of people laughing at stuff you (at best) don't think is funny or (at worst) think is utterly moronic can be an alienating and irritating experience. Luckily, for me at least, 'This is the End' made me laugh more often than not.

It's got all the hallmarks of the sort of US dude-comedy that I don't usually like: every gag is more or less based around a bunch of slacker, man-child "bros" talking about sex, chicks, drugs and booze - with ample comic millage taken from taboo subjects, such as rape and masturbation - and, aside from a brief cameo from Emily Watson, there aren't any female characters whatsoever to break up the sausage-fest. Yet there is a real warmth to the central male friendships between (co-writer and director) Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill - all playing exaggerated versions of themselves. It's big, it's silly, it's broad - but the novelty of seeing these stars playing with their screen personas, talking trash about each other's movies and sometimes (in the case of Michael Cera) knowingly going against type, is often really fun.

'A Field in England' - Dir. Ben Wheatley (15)

This bizarre, sometimes unfathomable, mix of pitch black humour and sleep-disturbing horror won't be a surprise to fans of Ben Wheatley's other films - or at least to those who've seen the equally macabre 'Kill List'. Set during the English Civil War, 'A Field in England' follows a group of deserters as they flee a battlefield, stumble upon some magic mushrooms and become embroiled in an unsettling, occult treasure hunt, whilst ostensibly looking for the nearest pub. The performances, from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, are enjoyably exaggerated and thespy, the sound design is magnificent and Laurie Rose's black and white cinematography yields wonders that belie the film's tiny budget - facts that all combine to create a unique sensory experience.

'Frances Ha' - Dir. Noah Baumbach (15)

Noah Baumbach films have a way of reaching directly, perhaps uncomfortably, into my heart and brain in a way that makes me feel as if they've been made especially for me. If 'The Squid and the Whale' seems to speak directly to my late-teens and young adulthood, then 'Frances Ha' absolutely nails that feeling of post-graduate aimlessness I share with many of my peers... I can only speculate that 'Greenberg' represents some future mid-life crisis!

Co-written by Baumbach and luminescent star Greta Gerwig, the film depicts Frances as she drifts between temporary, low-wage jobs, flits between various apartments and generally struggles to belong in the world of adulthood that she is nominally now considered part of. A wannabe dancer who looks destined to fall short of being quite good enough to really make it, this is the story of a wide-eyed kid who is gradually coming to the realisation that they might not get to be an astronaut and may have to accept being just another normal person. But that's OK. Baumbach and Gerwig deliver this timely and sobering message with a lightness of touch and touching humour that stops it from being in any way bleak: Frances maybe a bit of a fuck-up, but she's a loveable fuck-up and one I can certainly relate to.

This isn't simply one of the best films I've seen this year but, personally, it's the rare kind of film I can see making a lasting impression on my life in the way very few films can lay claim. Usually, at the very best, films find ways to challenge or perhaps just effectively articulate how you feel about the world. But, for me, films like 'The Squid and the Whale' and 'Frances Ha' seem to bring into sharp focus truths about myself that actually help me better understand the world I live in and my own place in it. That's possibly just me, but - in any case - that's a rare thing for a film to do.

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