Friday, 30 August 2013

'The Way, Way Back', 'Elysium' and 'Planes' (sort of): review round-up

'The Way, Way Back' - Dir. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (12A)

The words "Twentieth Century Fox Searchlight presents" or (better still) "from the makers of 'Little Miss Sunshine'" rarely herald something good. There's a certain quirksome, brightly coloured, ensemble cast-powered American Indie - usually with a sun-faded blue and yellow poster - that comes out every year bearing these stark promotional slogans (or warnings, as I call them). They usually have boring-straight-man-Steve-Carell in them somewhere ("I'm an actor!", these appearances seem to scream) and Alison Janney is never far away - though she's completely superfluous in the latest of these jangly guitar music laden monstrosities, 'The Way, Way Back', which adds to the feeling that a perfunctory box ticking exercise has informed some of the decision making from writers-turned-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

This one can be summed up as being about a kid (Liam "one expression" James) who is entirely miserable and unsympathetic in the face of constant, unearned kindness and compassion from almost everyone he meets. Sam Rockwell runs a water park and wants to be this kid's best friend, for... reasons, I guess. It's never clear why. He just starts following him around and smiling at him in a way that should register as creepy. Likewise, everyone at the water park - customers and employees - loves him. Amanda Peet wants to dance with him. Alison Janney is desperate for her son to be friends with him, while her daughter (the three first-name sporting AnnaSophia Robb) is equally desperate to be his summer girlfriend, hanging around looking longingly at him in spite of his clear lack of social graces and charisma.

The cherry on the cake here is that he hates his mother's (Toni Collette) new boyfriend (Carell), as children his age are liable to do. But whereas most kids in his position form an irrational hate they can't reasonably express about a person who's probably decent enough, this kid actually has sees first hand evidence that this guy is a douchebag and gets to shout about it at a garden party - re-framing the story from "angsty teen who needs to grow" to "crusader teen who knows better than the grown-ups about everything".

He should be a sympathetic character. We've all been awkward, moody teenagers. But this kid is his own worst enemy in a world that's throwing nothing but well-intentioned metaphors and sunshine in his direction for the most part... and he doesn't even really learn anything or change at all by the time the credits roll. He enters the film a moody, entitled little shit and exits the film in the same fashion. At the start Carell tells the kid he's a 3/10 and that he needs to put himself out there more and smile occasionally. Well, this is the story of a kid or goes from three to, charitably, a four and a half over an hour and forty minutes that will have you thinking "shit, even Sam Rockwell is bad in this" and "did these guys really write 'The Descendants'"?

'Elysium' - Dir. Neill Blomkamp (15)

It isn't 'District 9' but Neill Blomkamp's follow-up is as ambitious and imaginative as it is clunky. There's a lot of ham-fisted, panto-quality, over-acting involved - notably from Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as "Spider" and Jodie Foster, who seems to be playing a Disney villain in a film happening in her own imagination - while the childhood flashback sequences are a bit cheesy and obvious and, I'll concede, its movement between irreverent, splatter-gore comedy and cloying, string-music backed scenes of children on crutches in peril speak of a tonal mishmash. But it's also got some decent dystopian world building and spectacular design work, as well as some interesting politics for a mainstream blockbuster - with our hero, Matt Damon, framed as an insurgent against the robot drones, unhinged mercenaries and satellite surveillance footage of the film's privileged bad guys - white, wealthy elites living far above a shanty town and predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles in the shiny, clean space station paradise of the title.

The man who once nearly directed a Halo movie, based on the Microsoft video game, continues to borrow heavily from recent sci-fi hits of that medium - notably with elements of Mass Effect and Halo itself. There're some very video gamey future-weapons too, and the plot sees Damon effectively level-up into an augmented mech warrior for some hi-octane fight scenes against Sharlto Copley's crazed henchman that make me question whether I'd rather be playing 'Elysium' than watching it. But it's a solid and entertaining action movie with ideas and a high-concept, so overall I'm enthusiastic about it despite a great many shortcomings.

'Planes' - Dir. Klay Hall (U)

Now, I can only kind of review this - so take my opinion with a greater than usual pinch of salt - but I took my aviation-obsessed 2 1/2 year-old brother to see 'Planes' and he got bored after about 15 minutes, and we left the screening after 30. So I haven't seen the entire movie and usually wouldn't give too strong an opinion based on that. However, I wanted to note that this movie seemed to fail with its target audience: on a plane-mad toddler who will patiently watch actual YouTube footage of a helicopter take off with wide-eyed glee for a very uneventful ten minutes. Sadly, he just couldn't be bothered with the exploits of Dusty the Cropduster and I can't really blame him.

From my end I can only say it's very clear that the film was produced by Disney's straight-to-video people and not by Pixar. It's flat, not particularly detailed and the animation lacks finesse. And, on top of that, it's basically a re-make of the first 'Cars' with a less flawed, more bland central character. That's right: a re-make of 'Cars' made by less talented people. Shudder.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa': review

'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa' - Dir. Declan Lowney (15)

It's a familiar story by now: the successful UK TV sitcom - usually a small-scale, charmingly parochial comedy of manners or subtle character study - gets blown up to epic proportions for cinema screens, in a way that can't help but detract from what made the series work in its original form. That's not to say many of these films aren't fun to watch, especially for fans deprived of fresh TV episodes, but this tried and tested formula rarely results in anything that holds a candle to the small-screen original.

'The Inbetweeners Movie' could be held up as a good example of this well-worn trope working well: that film taking its teenage cast on a summer holiday to Crete is completely in keeping with the characters and the result is something very much in the spirit of the show. Though perhaps Armando Iannucci's 'In the Loop' does the best job of maintaining the spirit of its source, BBC TV series The Thick of It, in spite of transporting the back-room dealings and ineffectual PR spin antics of its British cabinet minister to Washington, DC. So, on a first glance, it would seem a shame that another Iannucci TV creation would be catapulting themselves rights over the shark on their debut big-screen outing.

'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa' - a new vehicle for Steve Coogan's long-running character co-created with Iannucci (among others) for radio comedy On the Hour, and the star of several TV series and specials since - sees the middling local radio DJ caught up in a hostage crisis and forced to become an unlikely negotiator between disgruntled, shotgun-toting DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) and the East Anglia police force. It seems like a set-up slightly off-kilter with the former chat show host's world, as gleaned over the years in shows like I'm Alan Partridge, but it doesn't play that way in practice. Happily this movie Partridge is as nuanced as ever and - though there are some broader moments to satisfy the film's wider audience - all the best moments stem from the character's trademark small-minded asides and from little character moments: for instance as he bemoans people who insist on keeping eggs in the fridge.

Fan favourite characters like troubled, ex-army Geordie Michael (Simon Greenall) and beleaguered, unappreciated personal assistant Lyn (Felicity Montagu) also benefit from nice, little bits of business which are simultaneously funny and which enhance these already rich characters - from Michael's revelation that he sleeps in a cupboard because "sometimes me brother wants the whole bed to himself" to Lyn's heartbreaking reaction to the fact that somebody is going to make a cup of coffee for her. For his part, as the nominal antagonist, Meaney's Pat is another subtle and surprisingly developed character, worthy of as much sympathy as derision - making him a fitting addition to the ensemble.

There are a few times when it falls a little flat in translation to a feature film format, with some gentle parody of Hollywood movies that comes off like B-Team 'Hot Fuzz', but for most of its length 'Alpha Papa' feels like a very good episode of the TV series. For some that might seem like an example of damning with faint praise but, as a fan of the character, nothing could be further from the truth. It's nice to spend an hour and a half with the infuriating, selfish, egotistical character that is Alan Partridge: rooting for him against our better judgement and sometimes even finding yourself touched by that ever-present, underlying sense that somewhere inside he's all too aware of his inadequacy. There's something very humane and humble about Coogan's Alan Partridge: on one level a figure of fun and a satirical assault on middle aged Top Gear viewers everywhere, but on another a strange testament to empathy and understanding of even the most wretched people.

Monday, 12 August 2013

'From Up On Poppy Hill', 'Only God Forgives' and 'Blackfish': review round-up

Not seen a lot of movies of late, but here's a round-up of some recent cinema trips. I won't review 'Red 2' (above) - because I only saw the first half - but thought I'd mention the fact that it was (from what I saw) so empty, lifeless and insipid that it was the catalyst for my second ever walk-out. Everyone, most especially Bruce Willis, was just going through the motions. Mary Louise Parker was watchable enough, but the constant misogynistic comments about her from Willis ("you don't give the girl a gun!" and "you don't bring the girl along on a mission!"), whose character talks about her to others constantly whilst she's standing right there, were grating to say the least. I'm sure Willis' character learns some valuable lesson about trust and/or sharing by the film's end, but I couldn't face another 45 minutes waiting for a grown-up to learn that women are people too. Anyway, it just wasn't funny, it was really slow, the action was deathly boring and at one point there was a lingering close-up of a tube of Pringles. There are obviously worse films, but very few are this lacklustre.

The first film I ever walked out of? Since you asked, I couldn't stomach Richard Curtis' interminable 'The Boat That Rocked' - even though I had been allowed to watch it whilst on the clock at a cinema. I was having such a bad time with that one that I left to go and Brasso some door handles instead. One major reason for this was that I'd just encountered a comic scene in which a man committed statutory rape - sneaking into bed with a woman in the dark, pretending to be her partner (which I felt was less "cheeky" than it was "creepy" and "sexual assaulty"). But the main reason was that I checked my watch, expecting to be halfway through this 135 minute epic, to find I'd been sat there for only half an hour. Just over an hour and a half left to go! No thanks, Curtis. No thanks.

'From Up On Poppy Hill' - Dir. Goro Miyazaki (U)

A colleague of mine aptly described this one as "minor Ghibli", and it certainly is one of the less significant entries in the Japanese animation house's filmography, but that's not to say it isn't entirely pleasant from start to finish. It's gentle, charming and life-affirming without being overly cheesy. It's also a damn sight better than director Goro Miyazaki's (son of Hayao) first attempt following his move from landscaping to filmmaking: the uncharacteristically dull and unpolished 'Tales From Earthsea' - sections of which felt like limited TV animation and a far cry from the finesse of 'Spirited Away' or 'My Neighbour Totoro'. The animation here is much better, though still not up there with the work Miyazaki senior or Isao Takahata, Ghibli's other master - responsible for the studio's most mature (less magical) works 'Only Yesterday' and 'Grave of the Fireflies'.

'Poppy Hill' - adapted from a 1980 manga by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi - is a wistful and nostalgic 60s-set story about two school kids who fall in love only to find that they are likely brother and sister: both having the same sea-faring father, who perished during the Korean War. This small-scale character-driven plot runs against the backdrop of more typically active movie fare, as the kids try to organise the student body to persuade the authorities not to demolish the old clubhouse and replace it with a newer building, in a rapidly developing Japan looking to eradicate reminders of its recent history. The clubhouse - home to a myriad of wacky extra-curricular activities, all taken extremely seriously by the student body - is reminiscent of something out of Wes Anderson's 'Rushmore' and is as fun a place to be as that suggests.

Perhaps the story reaches an all-to-sudden and convenient conclusion in the last few minutes, but it's genuine and heartfelt and difficult to be too cynical about. Filler until the next big Miyazaki masterpiece, maybe, but there are less winsome ways to spend an hour and a half.

'Only God Forgives' - Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn (18)

Hmmmmmmmm. And there I was thinking the last collaboration between Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling was all style and no substance. Well, say what you will about the hipster-baiting self-styled "instant cult classic" 'Drive', but compared to 'Only God Forgives' it's a nuanced character study and a hi-octane crime thriller of the highest order. This one sees Gosling play an American living in Bangkok, who runs a boxing club and whose nose is put very slightly out of joint when a cop allows a victim's father to kill his murderous rapist brother. The main thing you need to know about this character is that he looks pretty good in a suit - choosing to fight whilst dressed like a particularly trendy barista.

At my weary, bored-to-tears best estimate, around 80% of 'Only God Forgives' consists of Gosling sitting in the semi-darkness, staring into the middle distance, somewhere off camera (a friend suggested somebody on-set was waving something colourful) emoting nothing at all. Ignoring the bit where he shouts at a prostitute in a slightly weedly and accidentally comic way, his acting range in this film goes between expressions of acute indifference all the way up to moderate contemplation. There's a method writers employ to assess whether their characters are fully formed which requires them to be able to describe any given character without mentioning the way they dress or what they do for a living. Try doing that here, with any of the characters, and get back to me if you manage it. And "has penis-envy of his brother and wants to fuck his mum" doesn't count, because the film just outright, explicitly tells us that (several times) via Kristen Scott-Thomas in her ground-breaking against-type role as middle-aged-women-who-says-cunt.

Vithaya Pansringarm plays a brutal cop that many are calling the highlight of the movie, but this is another non-character. Or at least it's a movie stock character: a walking cliché - the violent killer with a code, whose capacity for ultra-violence sits in contrast to a peculiar affectation and/or hobby (in this instance karaoke). This character has been in every Quentin Tarantino film ever made, for instance. Where the film appears to think it has something to say is in relation to the Oedipus complex: it's all tracking shots down red hallways, Gosling's disgustingly literal urge to return to the womb, his apparent lust for his mother and the detail that he apparently murdered his father. But what the film is saying about all this is beyond me. In 'The Man Who Wasn't There' ace lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider tries to bamboozle a jury by claiming they should not look at the facts but the meaning behind the facts, and that the facts have no meaning. He might as well have been reviewing 'Only God Forgives'.

As a visual/sensory exercise though, it's obviously a piece of world-class work - the stuff of a real virtuoso. As with 'Drive' and 'Bronson' (the one Refn film I uncomplicatedly like) before it, 'Only God Forgives' shows Refn as a supremely visual storyteller and a real stylist. I eagerly await the next time these qualities once again combine with the urge to tell an actual story of some substance.

'Blackfish' - Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (15)

I write this every time I review a documentary, but it's difficult to separate what you think of the film's point of view from the quality of the film itself. Especially when said film is such a polemic, highlighting facts and cherry-picking interview subjects to arrive at a previously determined conclusion (however valid said conclusion might be). In this case, I overwhelmingly agree with the basic premise of and majority of the arguments in 'Blackfish': for what it's worth, I think the process of gathering cetaceans for commercial use is cruel and the evidence seems to suggest that life in captivity is detrimental to the animals' well-being.

That said, I don't think 'Blackfish' says anything that 2009's 'The Cove' didn't say far better and in a more slick and cinematic way that better delivers that point to an audience. 'The Cove' also looks at the subject in a much broader way - considering international whaling lobbyists, the anti-whaling movement and other things - whereas 'Blackfish' looks at SeaWorld very specifically. Aside from specific accounts of incidents at SeaWorld parks, involving the injury and death of employees working with orcas, I didn't find it particularly illuminating. It also takes a lot of things for granted and doesn't hold its subjects, mostly former SeaWorld employees, up to any amount of scrutiny. For instance, non-scientists make statements such as "scientists are reluctant to say whales have language but it's clear they have language" which go wholly unsubstantiated in the film and, at one point, one of the most vocal collaborators confesses "I know nothing about whales".

For those in the dark about the issues raised here, it may be a far better and more effective piece of filmmaking than I found it to be. It's a laudable and worthy film, for sure - and I hope a lot of people see it, as it could do some tangible good in the world (apparently it's already caused Pixar to re-write the end of their 'Finding Nemo' sequel) - it doesn't tell you anything you couldn't glean from skim-reading a couple of Wikipedia articles. However, it should perhaps be required viewing for those thinking of visiting a SeaWorld water park.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

'The World's End' and 'The Wolverine': review round-up + Interview with 'Frances Ha' director Noah Baumbach

My laptop went and broke the other day, so that's why (or, should I say, the latest reason why) I haven't been updating. Got a quiz to write for tonight (if you're Brighton-based, and fancy a challenge, get to Dukes at Komedia for 6.30ish), so I'll keep this short.

First up, I did an interview with director Noah Baumbach a little while ago for What Culture. That's available to read online here. Next up, reviews:

'The World's End' - Dir. Edgar Wright (15)

Full disclosure: I didn't grow up with Spaced and have only ever rated 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz' as "alright", so take my opinion of this conclusion to Edgar Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy" with a larger than usual pinch of salt. This one takes on aspects of the sci-fi genre as a small town's inhabitants are slowly replaced with, what I'm going to call (to make it easier to explain in shorthand), robots - though in a way that feels like the zombie horde from 'Sean' meets the strange, rural-folk conspiracy stuff of 'Fuzz'. In 'The World's End', Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a middle-aged man who hasn't moved on since the greatest night of his life: attempting "the golden mile" - a 12 pub crawl across his home town - with his closest mates. However, decades later, everything has changed except for Gary.

The pubs themselves are now identikit chain pubs and all his mates have moved on with their lives and moved away from the small town of their youth. Many of them, including Nick Frost's Andy, actively hate Gary - making things all the more uncomfortable as he pathetically attempts to get the gang back together for one last crack at the mile. It doesn't go well and only gets worse when the robots turn up. That was originally meant as descriptive, but actually forms a pretty good anchor point to start my critique because, for me at least, the film was far more entertaining and engaging before the science fiction elements kicked in. The "former friends coming back together in their sad little home town for a pathetic pub crawl" story was actually really well worked for the first half-hour, with nuanced characters and genuine pathos for Gary: a complete prick, but one you feel crushingly sorry for nevertheless. With his mates played by Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman and the ever-dependable Frost, the film trundled along very nicely for the first 30 minutes as a bitter-sweet comedy-drama.

And then the film gets lost in long (admittedly well choreographed) fight scenes, exposition about this alien/robot threat and all manner of other things that actually detract from what's really appealing and interesting about the film as was: the human drama and the character arc of Gary King - who, reservations about the overall film aside, I think is the year's best original character [more on that to follow at a later date, when I have time]. Gary's arc is maintained and still carries the film, of course, but it gets bogged down in everything else that's going on. It also doesn't help that the film - nominally a comedy - isn't really very funny. It has a few chuckles and it's never less than pleasant to watch, but it's uncharacteristically gag-light by the standards of the creative team. I will say this for it though: what this film has to say about friendship is far more mature and rewarding than pretty much ever other "bromance" movie. There are a lot of similarities between this and the summer's US comedy 'This is the End' - yet, whilst that film is far funnier, this one is the more interesting and emotionally affecting.

'The Wolverine' - Dir. James Mangold (12A)

It's the wrong side of the two-hour mark and goes by extremely slowly - with far more green tea-sipping than claw-knucked action - but 'The Wolverine' is watchable and oddly compelling if mainly because of Hugh Jackman's charisma as the title character. Loosely based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's celebrated and far-better-than-this-movie 1982 mini-series, which sees Logan on a solo adventure in Japan, the film takes the character out East where he becomes embroiled in the familial intrigue of a large corporation, a few fights with the Yakuza, and a punch-up with an unconvincing CGI robot samurai. There's a neat action sequence on a train and some nice moments for fans of the character (he even throws in a "bub" at one point), but James Mangold's film - strangely reliant on the maligned 'X-Men: The Last Stand' through extensive Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) dream sequences that might have been better left on the cutting room floor - requires prior investment in the character to be of any interest.

There are some odd cinematic allusions to great Japanese works, for instance one ninja fight sequence borrows imagery from Kurosawa's Macbeth adaptation 'Throne of Blood', and these might help explain the logic behind the film's mannered style and extremely slow pacing. This is probably the quietest blockbuster made this century - and that's admirable and makes for something weirdly fascinating, even if it doesn't really work as intended. It feels boring rather than intense or dramatic, but it's clear (and, again, admirable) that they were really trying to make a character-driven movie about regret and coming to terms with loss. I'm left wondering if they might have succeeded had Darren Aronofsky accepted the long-rumoured offer to direct, but - like his aborted 'Batman Begins' - it was sadly not to be. I will say this for 'The Wolverine' though: if modern superhero movies exist in large part as extended trailers for their inevitable sequels then the film did its job. Even before the post-credits scene, the film left me more excited about next summer's 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' than I was going in.