Tuesday, 22 April 2014

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2', 'Calvary', 'Noah', 'Muppets Most Wanted', 'We Are the Best', 'The Double', 'The Raid 2', and 'Labor Day'

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' - Dir. Marc Webb (12A)

Like its immediate predecessor, 2012's 'The Amazing Spider-Man', what's frustrating about Marc Webb's sequel is that it isn't totally, utterly terrible on anything like a consistent basis: it's that the film is sometimes an utterly perfect superhero comic adaptation between the (more frequent) instances where it's completely and utterly terrible. For instance, ignoring the boring opening scene in which it needlessly focuses on the death of Peter Parker's parents, the film starts with Spidey (Andrew Garfield, mumbling less than in the last film) swinging around a sunny New York City (this one isn't entirely set at night like the last) attempting to stop a robbery, aiding police in pursuit of a pantomime villain played by overacting's Paul Giamatti. It's one of the instances where the Spider-Man from the comic book page, and your childish imagination, is right up there on the screen, swinging through the streets with all the joyousness that makes him such an appealing character. He wisecracks the badguy to great effect and the animation is fantastic in that it presents the character in a way which is entirely comic book: he moves and bends like a cartoon character and not like a real person. It's terrific.

Then we cutaway to Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter's girlfriend, giving the painfully earnest and obviously prophetic graduation speech that Parker is typically late to because that's sort of Spider-Man's entire thing. And the fun leaves the movie for a few minutes. Then Spider-Man shows up again and it's awesome! Then the emo, sub-'Twilight' drama kicks in again. And so on. Now both leads are highly watchable and they have a chemistry that makes some of the straight-up romance scenes work very nicely, but these moments are self-conscious and overwritten, with musical cues that always tell you, right on the nose, exactly how to think and feel at any given moment. What they are not, generally, is fun to watch. Then there's poor Jamie Foxx, a decent actor who is given a truly thankless task as villain Electro, who has some unbearably embarrassing scenes which mostly involve talking to himself whilst the soundtrack starts to rap whatever he just said in the background. The Times Square action showdown between him and Spidey is laughable when it should be, if you'll pardon the pun, electrifying simply because of the terrible dialogue and cringe-inducing musical choices.

So it goes. There are some more excellent bits: Dane DeHaan predictably enough makes for a delicious comic book villain, as Peter's lifelong friend Harry Osborne (absent from the last film) who takes on the mantle of arch-nemesis the Green Goblin here. His late-film team-up with Electro is really fun to watch, as he taunts and intimidates members of the cartoonishly evil Oscorp board. Likewise the climactic action sequence, though hamstrung by its regrettable staging (taking place on the oversized cogs of a giant CGI clock), is tense and its climax emotional, if only because of the quality of the actors involved and prior attachment I feel to these characters. Yet there's so much crap in between the good moments that we're again left with a Spider-Man movie that is neither awful or brilliant or even consistently mediocre, but an unholy hybrid of all three. Which is disappointing and maybe the worst of all possible worlds because of the false hope proffered by the very best moments here.

'Calvary' - Dir. John Michael McDonagh (15)

Hinging on a stunning central performance by Brendan Gleason, as a good man and dedicated priest in a rural Irish town, 'Calvary' is writer-director John Michael McDonagh's typically tragicomic follow-up to 'The Guard'. Behind that great performance is a screenplay which not only boasts a lot of smart and darkly funny dialogue but also a simple yet ingenious premise. The film begins with an unseen person making a confession to Gleason's Father James Lavelle that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child and that, one week from now, he'll murder Lavelle on the local beach - the logic being that murdering a good priest for the sins of the church (inviting a fairly obvious Christian parallel) will mean more than murdering a bad one. The rest of the film follows Lavelle's daily life leading up to the prophesied event, as he runs into various members of his flock, all of whom have some sort of historic axe to grind with the Catholic church as an institution, which serves the dual function of allowing for some interesting contemplation about the role of the church in contemporary Ireland whilst also handily setting up a half-dozen potential murderers.

Even-handed to a fault, the supporting cast of broad archetypal characters - played by the likes of Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran and a particularly superb Chris O'Dowd - air a number of popular (and generally justified) grievances against the church's exploits, whilst in return Lavelle is shown to be a pretty smart and witty guy who more often than not has an amusing rebuttal, even if he doesn't always mount a counter-offensive. It's as much about the Catholic church as an institution as it is about religious belief and the very idea of a good priest - or even a good man - as it is a compelling, occasionally tense crime mystery and acidic, jet-black comedy.

'Noah' - Dir. Darren Aronofsky (12A)

Already one of the year's most divisive and controversial releases, Darren Aronofsky has risked alienating both secular and religious audiences with an epic adaptation of the story of Noah's Arc from the Old Testament book of Genesis. On the face of it you'd think there couldn't be much worse in this world than a big screen Bible story starring Russell Crowe, but the director's decision to tell it as a full-blown High Fantasy-influenced myth - complete with rock monsters, flaming swords and magical potions - makes for something highly entertaining, yet also thought-provoking as it becomes something of a discussion about the Old Testament in the post-flood second half. For his part Crowe is perfectly cast as a biblical patriarch in the old mould: an uncompromising zealot who would murder a child if God willed it of him. It's his decision to collaborate with God (referred to throughout as 'the creator') in wiping out the rest of humanity that forms the bulk of the third act soul searching and causes conflict between Noah and his long-suffering family.

Aronofsky is working on a large canvas here, though this succeeds where his previous attempt at something fantastical, theological and expensive - 'The Fountain' - failed, being more coherent and straight forward in a narrative sense, which gives the theological or moral concerns of the film more immediacy. Though none of his visual flair or tendency towards the poetic is diminished by this more conventional approach, with some particularly memorable and magnificent sequences standing out - such as a time-lapse montage of a trickle of water forming a mighty, continent-spanning river and a brilliant 'Tree of Life' style sequence that features the biblical story of creation being told over images of the formation of the universe as we presently understand it through science. And whilst these visuals impress, and the fallen angel/stone golems excite during a 'Lord of the Rings' style battle against Ray Winstone's army of damned humans, where it really excels is in its complex grappling with ideas.

The assumption with religion, at least in movies, tends to be that if you accept the existence of God then you must worship him. By setting this story in a world where 'the Creator' unambiguously exists the film instead seems to ask the question of should you follow him? This isn't the crisis of belief which we see explored time and time again, but an active challenge to God's moral authority. This is a vengeful and violent Old Testament deity who doesn't seem to have our best interests at heart. He damned his angels for helping Adam and Eve - and cast them out of heaven for exercising an innocent curiosity about the world around them. When Noah suggests he has been chosen by God not for being the best man, but for being the one prepared to get things done, what could read as a cliche action movie line actually suggests quite a frightening prospect. Not least that the nominal hero of the movie is actually a callous psychopath, with the sense growing ominously that his family are trapped on the arc with somebody dangerous and unhinged. As a result 'Noah' is a much smarter film than many might be expecting.

'Muppets Most Wanted' - Dir. James Bobin (U)

Disney's sequel to 2011's well loved 'The Muppets' might not hold together as neatly as a movie, lacking that earlier film's pathos and clearly defined character arc, but it's every bit as fun (and possibly more so) thanks to a high gag-count and some typically enjoyable musical numbers from Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie. This time the gang is tricked by Ricky Gervais' Dominic Badguy (amusingly described by Rowlf as "honest and humble") into embarking on a European tour during which Kermit is spirited away to a Siberian gulag and replaced by his evil doppelganger: Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog. Dominic and Constantine plan to use the tour as a cover to steal artifacts from the museums of Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London.

This great Muppet caper prompts intervention from the year's most surprising and enjoyable comedy double-act as an FBI agent (Sam the Eagle) and an Interpol Detective (Ty Burrell) seek to pin the blame on our framed heroes, whilst mocking each other's crime solving acumen and competing to see who has the biggest badge. Also extremely fun to watch is Tina Fey as the Kermit-obsessed warden of the gulag, stealing the show with her performance of one of the film's most toe-tapping songs and getting some of the best gags. It's a bit baggy in places but made with obvious love and a complete lack of cynicism, something backed up by dozens of celebrity cameos which feel less like an attempt to sell tickets and more like genuine expressions of the affectionate regard held for these fading icons within popular culture. 100% joyful from start to finish.

'We Are the Best!' - Dir. Lukas Moodysson (15)

A truly special film, Lukas Moodysson's coming of age story 'We Are the Best!' is a rare type of movie. It's uplifting without being schmaltzy, with an infectious enthusiasm for jumping around and generally being a 13 year-old misfit that I would have loved to have seen at that age - even if the film's curious '15' rating by the BBFC would have made that a difficult prospect. The plot concerns a group of young, female social outcasts, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who decide to form a punk band - more or less with the soul intention of pissing people off. Though they have a passionate interest in music from the start, and take the band increasingly seriously as the story progresses, it's this fearless irreverence and defiant attitude that makes the characters and the film so compelling.

It's an obviously apparent truth to say they don't make a lot of films of this quality about the experience of teenage girls but, more broadly, there just aren't that many films that depict adolescence with the kind of heart and complexity displayed here. The three leads are all incredibly interesting, lovable, fully-formed characters who you really root for in spite of, or rather because of, their naivete, stubbornness and half-formed pseudo-political ideas. As fun as it is, the film also cuts to the heart of what it means to be an outcast: to feel isolated, unloved and alone. We see their daily interactions with cruel classmates, weary teachers and odd parents - with three contrasting family dynamics proving its how you fuck up your children as opposed to if - and glimpse more than a little casual everyday sexism, that's so constant as to be mundane. Yet there is a fierce optimistic streak running through it too and the film is smart enough to also understand (and embrace) how the girls' self-conscious outcast status is to some extent a construction of their own design. A film that says so much about youth, friendship, being an outsider, and the unaffected joy of music.

The Double - Dir. Richard Ayoade (15)

There is so much to love about 'The Double', the second feature film directed by Richard Ayoade following his instant classic 'Submarine'. It has a brilliant cast of intelligent actors, making perfect use of the intense and twitchy Jesse Eisenberg - as both a downtrodden schlemiel and the obnoxious personification of his id who ruins his already crummy life - and Mia Wasikowska as another slightly broken person rendered similarly anonymous by an uncaring dystopian state. The supporting cast is a laundry list of other perfomers I really admire, such as Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Wallace Shawn, Tim Key, Paddy Considine, Chris O'Dowd and Chris Morris, as well as roles for Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, the young stars of his earlier film. It deals with themes of social isolation and awkwardness that I tend to enjoy seeing explored and has a brilliant concept as adapted from a novella by Dostoyevsky. It also has a style that seems to me like a blend of 'Brazil' and 'Punch-Drunk Love' - two of my favourite films.

So why did it leave me so cold? Why didn't it connect with me on an emotional level, even as I recognise that it was very clever and quite beautifully executed from a technical standpoint? I ask rhetorically here because I don't know the answer myself, at least after a single viewing. (I'm sort of working it out as I type this.) There's nothing I could point to as being 'wrong' with it and, conversely, so much that I could describe enthusiastically. In particular the staging of scenes and the lighting was really terrific, whilst the fractured, off-kilter musical score by Andrew Hewitt was quietly effective at creating discomfort and tension. So why wasn't I engaged by it? The best I can come up with now is that there isn't enough lightness there, not enough hope or happiness in this world to make you think our heroes have anything worth striving for. In both 'Brazil' and 'Punch-Drunk Love' it's love that makes the world worth living in, despite all the other crap going on that makes you question humanity, and that's what Ayoade is seemingly trying to evoke here with the relationship between Eisenberg and Wasikowska. But it somehow falls flat, perhaps because she never seems like she's into him and he just seems like a creepy stalker.

In 'Brazil', Sam Lowry is able to dream of a life beyond the stale, bureaucratic dystopia he inhabits because of an idealised love affair that he dreams will take place. It doesn't matter that (spoiler warning) it doesn't, because we join him in feeling like it could. We badly want it to happen for him and the ending is a punch to the guts because we don't get our way. Similarly, 'Punch-Drunk Love' has Barry Egan live in a world rendered cruel by his own internal struggles with anxiety and confidence, and he hopes to break free of his inhibitions and give his experience of life meaning - in a frightening and often hostile world - through a love which will validate his existence and give him peace of mind. This works because Emily Watson's character genuinely likes him too and, in fact, initiates contact (making it more about him overcoming his emotional problems than about him "winning the girl"). 'The Double', as I see it, is combining both of those narratives but something has been lost in translation. I feel like the film wants to make my heart soar when the up-tempo J-Pop song comes on in a dingy cafe or when Jesse dances down the corridor, towards the camera (in a shot lifted directly out of 'Punch-Drunk Love') as the lighting cues change around him in harmony with the music and mood. But it didn't and I'm as confused as anyone as to why that was.

'The Raid 2' - Dir. Gareth Evans (18)

There's a scene in the second 'Bill & Ted' film where they're falling into a seemingly bottomless abyss. At first they are screaming, terrified of the expected collision with the ground below, but minutes later they are simply bored - memorably playing a game of 20 Questions to pass the time as they continue downwards. Psychologists might chalk this up as an example of the hedonic treadmill, which sees human beings return to a sort of stable emotional baseline after a while regardless of positive or negative events, in other words: there's only so long you can be terrified for. That might seem like an odd way to open my critique of Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans' 'The Raid 2', a sequel to his well received 2011 Indonesian martial arts film, but it's the only way I can explain how I felt watching the film's intense but lengthy fight sequences.

Choreographed with imagination and performed with incredible skill, any five minute clip of a fist fight in 'The Raid 2' would be jaw-dropping and pulse-raising. The fights are fast, frantic and brutally violent, and they get more and more extreme as the film continues. Yet there's only so long I can be thinking "wow, this is intense" before my mind starts to wander and I find myself thinking "what's for lunch?" only to pull back and realise the same fight is still going on and plucky rookie cop Rama (Iko Iwais) still hasn't dealt that killer blow we know is coming.

I don't mean to seem so negative about the movie, which I actually enjoyed hugely for the most part. It's spectacular for a good portion of its length and the epic gangster drama which unfolds is consistently engaging (if convoluted and occasionally confusing), even if it lacks the tightness of the original's ingenious concept. But it turns out the film's two and a half hour running time tests the limits of my attention span when it comes to unrelenting, first-driven carnage.

'Labor Day' - Dir. Jason Reitman (12A)

Telling the tale of how one mentally ill woman (Kate Winslet in full-on 'middle-American housewife' mode) falls in love with (and makes hasty plans to move to Canada with) a convict she's just been kidnapped by (Josh Brolin) over one blissful, romance-filled weekend, 'Labor Day' is the unhappy spectacle of lots of very talented people having a very bad day. To start with, Brolin's escaped convict is the most cliche example of a dreamy, manly-man as it's possible to be: fixing the kitchen sink and the car; cooking a mean chili con carne in the most sensual way possible; playing baseball in the yard with her son (Gattlin Griffith) and the nice disabled boy from across the road; serenading Winslet on the acoustic guitar - all in a tight-fitting white t-shirt. Despite his rarely mentioned manslaughter charge, which never seems to bother Winslet & son in the slightest, he's presented as the dream answer to every trite utterance of "that boy needs a man in the house" across the span of American popular culture.

Aside from teaching us, in hyper-incestuous erotic fashion, how to make a mighty tasty looking peach pie (in an extended cooking scene almost pornographic in detail) there is very little of worth to take away from 'Labor Day'. Overwrought drama and convoluted tension playing out over events that (being charitable) very quickly begin to stretch credibility. There's even a teenage romance sub-plot, which gives us a particularly egregious example of the manic pixie dream girl (Maika Monroe) phenomenon. Winslet and Brolin are fine actors and they demonstrate good chemistry together as romantic interests, but that isn't enough to save this from being one of the year's worst so far.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier', 'Under the Skin', 'The Past', and 'Starred Up': review round-up

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' - Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo (12A)

A sequel to both Joe Johnston's charmingly Spielbergian WWII-set origin story 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and Joss Whedon's superhero team-up crowd-pleaser 'The Avengers', 'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' is tonally very different to those films and indeed to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date. Directed by the Russo brothers, this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier (alluded to by the writer's cameo as one of the scientists behind his creation), the film does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave.

The casting of Robert Redford as the political face of world peacekeeping force SHIELD, Alexander Pierce, is one of many nods to the classic thrillers of the 70s, as this film delves into more morally grey territory than its predecessor. Where once there was a struggle between the 'greatest generation' and the Nazis, Cap (Chris Evans) now finds himself in a world he doesn't recognise and which has seemingly abandoned the principles of freedom he fought so hard for in the 40s. Now SHIELD is starting to look like something more tyrannical and oppressive than it seemed when Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) first burst onto the scene at the end of the first 'Iron Man' film - creating huge, automated airborne battleships capable of detecting and erasing threats before they happen: in an obvious nod to both modern drone warfare and the NSA surveillance scandals of the last few years.

Against this background is a well-crafted superhero romp, which is also something of a mini-Avengers team-up as Cap unites with the aforementioned Falcon and Scarlett Johansson's espionage specialist Black Widow to stay one step ahead of SHIELD and discover the truth behind the agency's corruption - thwarted at every turn my a mysterious new enemy with a link to Cap's own past: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency.

'Under the Skin' - Dir. Jonathan Glazer (15)

A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body.

Johansson is perfectly cast in the role, especially as the film is set in Scotland and she adopts a clean, regionally non-specific English accent when talking to her co-stars - mostly comprised of non-actors, supposedly oblivious (at least at first) to the fact they were part of a film. The audience is aware that she's a Hollywood movie star pretending to be English and, even if they don't consciously realise it, those she approaches must also have sensed this unease with and disconnect from the star in their midst: familiar yet just different enough to sow seeds of doubt. She's an impostor playing an impostor and it works brilliantly, especially as she glides around British high streets and shopping centres in her black wig and incongruous fur coat.

Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status.

'The Past' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)

In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions. Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who travels to France to finalise a divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, star of 'The Artist') from whom he has been separated for four years. Whilst there he is immediately thrown, quite against his will, into an unfolding family drama that he otherwise has nothing to do with, as Marie begs him to have a heart-to-heart with her eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), in order to find out why she's taken against her mother's new partner Samir, played by 'A Prophet' star Tahar Rahim.

After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion.

'Starred Up' - Dir. David Mackenzie (18)

Muggin' everybody off, and generally causing no small amount of bovva on his cell block, in this gritty British prison movie is rising star Jack O'Connell as damaged, young offender Eric Love - a teenager prematurely moved up to big boy jail because of how violently he behaves. In service of drama, Eric is improbably moved to the same prison, and indeed the same wing, as his equally unhinged father Neville (the always intense and brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn) where he comes face-to-face with his past and some the issues which have played a part in his becoming a violent offender in the first place. Without explicitly stating it, there's undoubtedly a history of physical and mental abuse between them that's telegraphed mainly in how O'Connell's body language and demeanor change when confronted by his old man. Apparently known to audiences for his role in teen drama Skins, O'Connell makes an impressive transition to the big screen here: as charismatic as he is frightening and unpredictable.

The central drama concerns how Eric becomes a pawn in a broader game played between a powerful fellow inmate (Peter Ferdinando, who was excellent in the low budget crime film 'Tony'), a crooked and cruel prison warden (Sam Spruell), and a well-meaning volunteer psychologist (Rupert Friend). Friend's psychologist lobbies the skeptical prison establishment to get Eric placed in his self-help group (which they want to see fail for reasons of pantomime vindictiveness), where he can talk through his problems and learn to deal with his emotions without resorting to violence, whilst the prison authorities mostly just want to smash his face in - to the extent where all the police seem like irrational villains. It's the interactions between the various prison staff that ultimately bring the film down, though scenes between inmates (and especially those in Friend's group) are often gripping and compelling.