Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Review: Cinderella

Year: 2015
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Chris Weitz
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter

Synopsis is here:

To paraphrase from another, well-loved Disney adaptation, this is a tale as old as time. This 2015 version of Cinderella is a live action take on the Disney telling of the well-known story. Despite the director’s talk of subversion, this film’s rebellion takes its form in actually being part of the status quo. Disney’s original take was made in 1950 and this version seeks to reiterate what was said before. The idea seems to be that Cinderella’s traditional approach should be able to stand tall against the more progressive themes of the likes of Frozen.

There’s been some interesting think pieces which have been quick to pick up on the film’s lack of progression. I do believe there is an importance to this, considering just how influential and successful the Frozen juggernaut has become.       

To have Tasha Robinson question the passive nature of the film is understandable. I do the same with the likes of Harry Potter or Twilight. Yet the hostility and tone towards being nice and awaiting princes at a film which is trying to be as earnest as possible about the idea of being nice is more than a little strange when we are looking at a film which is being targeted at those who are still in single digits. I’m not the biggest fan of some of the subject matter that appears within the film. Yet if I have a kid, I know I can argue my case with them. I remember my parents taking me to Sunday school, but I also remember them informing me of other religions. The same thing applies, I feel.  

I’m more worried about how much of this fairy tale fluff finds its way into more adult fare. When the likes of Bridget Jones and Sex in the City try and maintain such ideals when we have built discerning tastes and should know better than in a bland simple fantasy. One of the reasons I tend to stay away from writing about films aimed squarely at kids is due to how jaded we as adults can be towards such material as Cinderella. While I do feel that in our modern age, it would have been more interesting to have seen a female writer/director take the reign of the project in terms of agency, we are now expecting subversion in films which are clearly set up to try and deflect the cynicism we endure throughout our day to day life? I don't write to offer all the answers, but I do wonder how many kids would read such writing and raise an eyebrow.

I think my issue is that no matter how traditional this film plays things, it is still in essence a kids' piece. I do feel, however despite my previous mansplaning in the above paragraphs, I must admit that Branagh’s feature is a bland one. The film’s casting and art design show that the production had finance to burn, and it all finds its way to the screen. Kudos must go out to Customer designer Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti (a Scorsese regular) for the building of the world. We also must thank Cate Blanchett for giving the world some energy. Unfortunately Downton Abbey’s Lily James’ breathy performance and Game of Throne’s Richard Madden’s toothy charm evaporate pretty quickly. Meanwhile Branagh does little to stir the pot emotionally or visually to make the film any more the sum of its parts.

The film’s robust box office earnings suggests that we still live in a world where pot stirring isn’t the way to go. Despite feminist criticisms and my own indifference, Cinderella offers a similar stance to Fifty Shades of Grey. The subject can be questioned and yet the desires for the fantasy still remains. As bland as I may find this film as a piece of entertainment – and believe me it really doesn’t go anywhere - I do feel that Disney’s shrewdness has paid off, and not just because there is a Frozen animated short played in front of the main feature. Although having that short in front gives the target audience a powerful characteristic: The right to choose. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Review: Insurgent

Year: 2015
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Avika Goldman
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Daniel Dae Kim, Ray Stevenson, Octavia Spencer

Synopsis is here:

After spending over four hours in the Divergent universe, watching Insurgent the day before, I can honestly say that’s all I’ll need. I don’t regret my time spent with the young adult series. The importance of such franchises within the cinematic world, is definitely not lost on me. I must, however stress that despite the film’s progression of feminine goals, narratively, as with the first film, feels cumbersome and confounding at the worst of times and predictable at best. This is the heroine’s journey at its most basic. Yet we’re constantly thrown terms and descriptions which seem awkward for even the actors pronouncing them. Within the first act of this second entry, as I found Divergent, I felt that Insurgent is probably far more memorable as a book than a film.

Such discouraging thoughts come easily due to Insurgent’s ineffective screenplay. It is a film with a mass converging of characters, all jostling for screen time, yet struggling to gain the right amount of significance that they actually deserve because the film must push on with the lead character’s “neo complex”. I don’t mean this to be a negative on the role of Tris, who is ably played by Shailene Woodley. However Insurgent is so wrapped up in the character that other, clearly important characters are criminally underwritten. A perfect example of this is with the character of Tris’ brother Caleb Prior played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars). Far too often the character makes grand choices which motivate the plot yet are vaguely construed the man himself. Meanwhile the film’s central relationship between Tris and Four (Theo James) convincing, yet their connections between everyone else are often weakly portrayed. Much of the plot is clearly entangled between the youthful leads and their parents, but nothing is ever given much detail or resonance.

The frustrating thing about Insurgent, as with Divergent, is that nothing seems to stick. Visually the film is slick, glossy and feels a lot more open, but is still rather more functional than stand out. I’ve seen The Maze Runner (2014) and find both Insurgent and Divergent a tad more interesting (particularly the action sequences), but still quite ordinary when it comes to the characters and their interactions. It’s a film that has motifs and scenes that will remind you of more interesting/entertaining features. I doubt anyone is surprised that the Divergent series gained a greenlight once the likes of The Hunger Games became successful. I also wouldn’t be surprised if many other favour Katniss over Tris, although both are still playing an important part in terms of female roles with agency.

For me it speaks volumes that, as me and my girlfriend left the cinema, I mention how much of the divergence test in the film made me think about Luke’s trials in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). My girlfriend, who has no interest in Star Wars, was taken back by this.  I feel one reason being, that such action packed young adult action has been aimed at guys for so long, that aspects of this franchise generally feel fresh for females whom have never been interested before. Perhaps my cynicism gets the better of me. Insurgent works for my girlfriend, I was merely taken for a ride. Like so many women have been obliged to when guys get to see boys play with their toys. So as derivative as I may have found it, it looks to be opening doors for others. So silver linings.  

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Review: Blackhat

Year: 2015
Director: Micheal Mann
Screenplay: Morgan Davis Foehl
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, and Wang Leehom.

Synopsis is here

It’s happened again. A film comes out and makes no money. The reviews for it are pretty dreadful, and here I am, finding it to be it to be an enjoyable piece of entertainment. Garnering interest in things others had little time for. Finding excitement in areas where people saw none. Blackhat isn’t the strongest of Micheal Mann’s filmography. It’s not even the best in his latter digital photography phase, but I found much to enjoy in this film that the slightly garbled plot and blunt dialogue couldn’t really deter. Blackhat isn’t just timely, but utilises stakes in a way that certain espionage films aren’t bothered with.

It seemed one or two reviews were more preoccupied upon whether an attractive man such as Hemsworth could be a hacker than the films deeper and timely insights of globalised cops and criminals and the ease of new tech attacking capitalism from the inside. We may not be looking at the Deepweb, but the way Mann focuses this imagery on the comparative ease of short range Bluetooth exchanges, before expanding to the vast destruction of a nuclear station shot helps highlight just how easily we can be infiltrated. Jokes made about Mann’s Fincher-like swooping visuals of circuity (a la 1995’s Hackers) seemed to have just how deep inside the wiring Mann delves, how small the RAT (Remote Access Tool) is and how truly high such a small blinking light makes the stakes. When the plan of the antagonist and the material it looks to limit is revealed, I really don’t believe only I held on to my smart phone a little tighter.

As a film viewer who’s already in love with Mann’s visual style, I found myself adoring the films look. The use of space and form I found at times as exceptional. Mann gracefully moves from cramped, detailed intersections of computers and concerned faces to vast exotic landscapes under threat for nothing. While wide shots of huge, broken industrial structures show just how far the damage can range. Various shots and moments carry a weight to them that would simply not be featured in a film considered more bog standard. Mann adds to this with more of his trademark shootouts. All of which are still strikingly well staged, including a beautifully composed and brutally tense finale set during a recreation of Indonesia’s Balinese Nyepi Day festival, which is currently contending with the church sequence in The Kingsmen as the most notable action set piece of the year.  
The film's casting is not only solid, but varied and diverse. Hemsworth may not have the craggy, lived in look of James Caan (Thief), but he proves that he’s a neatly calculated choice as a leading man, who holds a similar, cool swagger to that of Colin Farrell in Miami Vice (2006). It’s easy to see the similarities between Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway and his love interest Chen (Tang Wei), and the relationship forged in Miami Vice between Farrell’s Crockett and Isabella (Gong Li). Whether you’re interested in what occurs and how, may depend on your feelings on that previous relationship. Both Wei and Viola Davis both illustrate the kind agency that is so often missing in other films of this ilk.

Frustratingly, Blackhat’s lackluster box office performance, limited itself as a decent piece of counterprogramming at a time where 50 Shades of Grey demolished records, with its strong performance. The poor American box office is probably one of the reasons, we saw a reduced number of cinemas screening it. This combined with the film’s confused marketing, and dismissive reviews helped hide a film which holds far more resonance and smarts than people had expected. For me; Blackhat’s timely themes alone make it worth seeking out. When Mann then adds his beautiful visuals and striking action, it certainly made the 20 mile trip I had to make to see it even more worthwhile.

Review: The Kingsmen: The Secret Service

Year: 2015
Director: Matthew Vaughan
Screenplay: Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman
Starring: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton and Michael Caine.

Synopsis is here:

I’ll probably keep this short and sweet. The Kingsmen is juvenile in the purest way. It’s more violent than it probably needs to be. There’s an air of smugness about it all, and any real message about Britian’s ongoing issues with class is lost in a medley of body slicing, literal bible bashing and inappropriate sexual gags. Despite all this, the film is so strangely cathartic in its displays of bad taste, I found it hard not to smirk. At a time in which James Bond has gone “back to basics” and reverted back to its original boys club with so much seriousness. The Kingsmen’s silliness do give an odd sense of relief, despite its raspberry blowing bad taste. Matthew Vaughn’s pulp sensibilities are strong, and the balance often feels right.

It’s clear Kingsmen wishes to be a more out and out, subversive take on the British spy genre (something you feel that Vaughan has been angling at since Layer Cake), but despite this, the film still leans towards the conservative elements that the likes of Bond have never truly shaken off (consider where we sit at the end of Skyfall). There’s lots of talk on gentlemanly conduct and nobleness. Yet the film seemingly wishes to clearly establish a certain type of Britishness. Converting the rough around the edges Eggsy (a confident Taron Egerton) to a Kingsman is a relatively fun hero’s journey, but it doesn’t hit the peak of subversion that Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011) brought across. The film never really takes or challenges the Bond mantle, it mimics the franchises absurdity under a veneer of colourful gloss.

This isn’t really a problem, however, depending on how you feel about the likes of Mark Miller (writer of the comic book the film is based on). Vaughn’s brazen joy of staging Miller’s near nihilistic tendencies is the tipping scale of enjoying this film. A church sequence which involves the fatal causalities of many nasty (yet innocent) people, has caused issues with some, yet is so brilliantly executed it is hard not to admire. A particular joke near the end of the film has caused a certain amount of controversy – rightly so when reading the credits to see who Vaughan makes the film in memory of – but to me, only really highlights the type of provocations that Connery and the like were getting away with for decades. Muddled and icky? Yes, yet no more than the general politics of the film and it’s clear that if you’re a fan of Vaughan’s brand of humour, you can see the nonsense of it all.

I won’t lie. As someone as centre-left leaning as I consider myself, I didn’t find myself completely hating the films puerility as much as I often would in similar films. Vaughan’s keen direction and the solid cast clearly wish for you to be in on the joke. The Kingsmen has a sensation of a sugary cinematic purge which wants us to get in touch with some of our baser reasons for going to the cinema, before we’re reminded of our more levelled head sensibilities. I know many who will disagree with me and their reasons will be totally justifiable. But I went into this film holding a Tango Ice Blast. I think helps establish the type of film I was expecting.

Review: It Follows

Year: 2014 (U.K release 2015)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Screenplay: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary

Synopsis is here

A friend of mine, warned me about It Follows not being “scary” in the slightest. Informing me of the walkouts he had in his screening, he was quick to label the film as pretentious. Once that word was used I was wary about his reaction. However, when the film made a splash with some of my other film friends last year at the London Film Festival, I was even more cautious. I saw one tweet from an acquaintance labelling it as one of the horror films of the decade. After finally viewing the film on the Saturday of its opening weekend. I can safely say that while I lay somewhere in the middle of both reactions, the film’s unsettling style and thoughtful subtext had me wondering about the film in fascination for a good two days.

It Follows is not scary in the now more conventional sense of long banging jump scares (although one such moment is perfectly handled). The film mines great amounts of discomfort from it’s startlingly simple premise. If you have sex with someone who has had “it” passed on to them, then “it”, a shape shifting apparition, will follow you. It makes a beeline for you. It’s slow, yet unrelenting. It can look like someone you know, or a complete stranger. Once “it” has you, then it leaves your mangled corpse before moving on to the person who passed it before.

Part of the film’s strangeness comes from the various human forms the shape takes. One of the earlier scenes has us witness “it” as an elderly woman. Once you consider the films mechanics, the film becomes more disquieting. It takes forms of people these teens know and love. This not only disarms the youths, but also implies transgressive consanguinity based anxieties, which are difficult to shake off. Two of the key scenes are quick to remind you not only of the absence of adults, but also the destruction of the suburban family. A well-known component of U.S horror, which often rears its head amongst the strongest entries of the genre.

Then the film contrasts this with the way it observes teenage sexually (particularly female) and relationships. Marking them with a keen eye for closeness and rapport. While the dialogue isn't remarkable, the performances do grow as the film continues and the icky creepiness of the premise and the cold deliberate dread of the film then really takes hold. Highlighting relationships, not too dissimilar to the seemingly parentless teens who permeate the films of Larry Clark. A sense of loneliness begins to penetrate throughout. Parents are often heard but never really seen, while most of the information shared between the kids never trickles up to them, only emphasizing the generation gaps and isolation.  

The main reason the film manages to instill such a beautiful sense of dread, is its cinematography. Excuse me for my hyperbole (I’m sure you have before), but I can’t think of a horror film which lies so much fear on such precise compositions. Utilising the widescreen format (as well as autumn, suburb setting) in a way that harks back to one of horror’s granddaddies: Halloween. While so many horror films have attacked the forefront and centre. It Follows, like Halloween, understands just how disturbing things are when we’re not fully focused on them. Things don’t jump out in It Follows, they stalk towards. Close ups make us restless, as due to their tightness, we can’t peer round the frame. Innocuous background characters, suddenly pose threat when walking into the shallow depth of field.  The film becomes a “Guess Who” of the genre, gleefully recalling the “did you see that” feeling of Carpenters 1978 hit feature.

Unfortunately It Follows sometimes suffers from some frustrations. A character informs another of a certain rule and it’s broken with a hint of irony. One could easily place this down to fear and I urge you should for more enjoyment. However, the fact that characters play a little fast and loose with the rules more than once, only reminds me of just how Scream (1996) broke a generation of film goers. The film also feels more than a little indulgent at the best of times. Not all the directorial flourishes always help tell the story or build the character while the music often comes off as more jarring and incessant. 

However, by the end of the film, It Follows posed questions and feelings that, much like Kill List (2009), or Ringu (1998) provoked me with a complexity and ambition that I so often crave from a horror film. Much of the films beauty lies in the fact that despite having elements that will remind folks of Kids (1995), Final Destination (2000), Under the Skin (2014), The Terminator (1984), The Night of the Hunter (1955) or the photographic works of Gregory Crewdson, It Follows never feels like it a list of obvious homages. It never rests on its retro leanings or its laurels. It uses subtext to its advantage and does what I feel a good horror should do: make the mundane feel frightening. It Follows sets a high bar for horror movies in 2015. Unlike my friend in the first paragraph, I hope that the other contenders can keep up.