Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Whole New World

Since The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolanism has become a word to describe realism in the fantastical. It defines worlds in which Batman's adventures would not be out of place on the news and where travelling into dreams can be a conceivable form of extracting or planting ideas. But now the word stretches its definition to the realms of space and the extended universe. This is Interstellar.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA pilot turned farmer, lives in a future where that career transition is a necessity as the world's food supplies are running dry. The governments need farmers, not explorers. His daughter, Murph (Younger: Mackenzie Foy, Older: Jessica Chastain), is convinced a ghost is trying to communicate with her and upon analysing the messages, Cooper begins to believe gravity is forming co-ordinates in the dust that has engulfed the world and his house. They follow the co-ordinates and stumble on the biggest secret on Earth: a mission to save all of humanity. Cooper gets invited to pilot on the mission to explore the discoveries of the Lazarus Project, a previous expedition to find planets capable of supporting Earth's population. Three planets, on the other side of a wormhole, show promise and Cooper, with his team of fellow scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as robots, TARS and CASE (both operated by Bill Irwin, though CASE is voiced by Josh Stewart), are going to have to battle time and gravity in order to preserve their resources and get home to their families and Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to send the human race to the stars.

A pretty cool planet.

A star studded plot needs a star studded cast, and Interstellar provides just that. After winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club in February, McConaughey has wasted no time in picking up further ambitious acting projects, and he does not disappoint here. Flicking effortlessly between fun-loving dad, deadly serious pilot, and emotionally driven missionary, Cooper is a hugely diverse and opinionated protagonist that the audience cannot help but root for. Hathaway's Brand creates a powerful contrast to Cooper who also, paradoxically, perfectly compliments his aims, ambitions, and ideas. The relationship between the two builds tension and disjuncture, but ultimately creates an important and entertaining bond. Most memorably, though perhaps this is is arguable, is Bill Irwin's TARS. Not only voiced, but physically controlled by Irwin, TARS steals almost every scene he is in, not only as a looming presence, but as a hilariously funny and accessible character. Irwin's comic timing is impeccable, delivering TARS' humour settings in a gloriously deadpan voice. Minor spoiler warning. Move on to the next paragraph to avoid: Matt Damon's Dr Mann is a wonderful addition to both the cast and plot, His initial joy to see another human face is both heartbreaking and overwhelmingly happy. His brief development, from Earth's best hope to biggest coward, is some of the strongest and most powerful in the film.

'That must have been one really small step for man...'

Interstellar boasts a scientifically fantastic script - no doubt helped by executive producer Dr. Kip Thorne's scientific knowledge. Not only is it fully engaging from the get go, it is intelligent and based very firmly in scientific theory. The creativity and originality of the Nolan brother's screenplay creates a moving, dramatic, powerful, and, most of all, visually stunning piece of cinema. Importantly, the film is from the perspective of a father and a daughter rather than of astronauts and scientists; it creates an emotional core for the film that is grounded in the family rather than the intellectually or masculinely superior heroes. Accompanied by a stunning and original score by Hans Zimmer, the film is a gift to the senses. Aesthetically, the new worlds and the deep realms of space are portrayed beautifully, capturing an almost childlike sense of wonder in the frame of the camera. Waves as tall as skyscrapers, frozen clouds, three dimensional worm holes are just a few of the breathtaking designs in the film. Prepare to be completely absorbed into the Nolans' worlds.

Ambitious, astonishing, and outstanding. A visual masterpiece full of intellect,laughs, sorrow, pain, and love. With constant references and homages to other great science-fiction (namely 2001: A Space Odyssey), Interstellar is a must see for all. Nolan continues his stream of great films with, arguably, his most fully formed creation.

Best Bit? A multitude of options in this film, but for me it has to be the first planet in which huge waves come hurtling towards the ship and its inhabitants as they look for data from the Lazarus Project. A thrillingly suspenseful series of events.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Space Outcasts

Outcasts unite in space, but whilst rebellious, they are also the good guys - right? No, I'm not talking about Firefly. Not everything is about Firefly (even if it should be). No, we are talking about the latest edition to Marvel's cinematic universe. This is Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) - abducted child turned space relic hunter - stumbles across a small metal orb in the ruins of a devastated settlement. It turns out that he is not the only one wanting to be in possession of the orb as he soon under attack from warriors working for Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Salanda), a talking raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and humanoid tree sidekick, Groot (Vin Diesel), and his old hunting partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). Also on his tail are the authorities and it is them who catch up with him first, as well as a cohort of his attackers. Thrown into maximum security, Quill, Rocket, Groot, and Gamora form an alliance in hopes of escaping to sell the orb on for 14 million units. Teaming up with Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking beast of a man-type-thing who wants Ronan dead more than anything, the group begin to scheme together. But have they bitten off more than they can chew with this orb?

'Hands and... er... Leg up!'

On paper, the ensemble sounds like someone picked a lucky dip of actors and threw them at a screen. Henry the Serial Killer, a professional wrestler, Andy from Parks and Recreation, the voice of Darth Maul, and Oscar nominated Bradley Cooper as a CGI racoon. Not to mention Vin Diesel as a tree who can only say three words. And yet, miraculously, the pick-and-dip casting has led to one of the most fantastic ensembles assembled in a superhero film, giving even The Avengers a run for their money. Together the cast are not only hilarious but also hardcore action heroes, switching from dancing fools to rocket-shoe powered, gun wielding warriors in seconds. And throughout all the fun and laughter, there is a genuine heart beating at the core of the film. Bautista's Drax's broken heart over his murdered family leaves him screaming for revenge and best friends Rocket and Groot protect and love each other in a truly touching way. As the relationships grow - not just on screen, but between audience and character - we find ourselves caring deeply about these misfits and may even shed a tear as the film reaches its climax.

Rocket had wanted Groot to branch out, socially.

Whilst remaining, at its soul, a light piece of cinema, Guardians of Galaxy has achieved something that few films manage, even in the Marvel universe. Whilst other Marvel films have tugged at our heartstrings despite their humorous appearance, particularly the Iron Man series, Guardians have managed to take it a step further. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman's screenplay is endlessly funny with well developed characters that resonate with the audience and ensure that the emotional scenes hit home harder. Aesthetically, the film is at the top of its class with strong CGI characters in Groot and Rocket, but also with entertaining, action packed fight scenes from the beginning of film all the way through to the end, and an awesome mix of songs to create a funky, groovy soundtrack.

With something for everyone, Guardians of the Galaxy will go down a storm all over the world. While it is not a new masterpiece of cinema or anything revolutionary, it is likely to go straight into people's favourite films list. One viewing will not be enough.

Best Bit? The gang cause a major fuss in prison in their attempt to escape. Groot is too eager to execute Rocket's plan and the hunt for a guards ID arm implant and a metal leg become more of a manic war than a scavenger hunt.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 5: Optimism

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. The 90s was a strange time for the apocalyptic film. It seems that, suddenly, humanity is stronger than we previously thought! Do you not believe me? Here is 1996's Independence Day.

On July 2nd, a strange signal from space is picked up on Earth. It soon becomes clear that we are not alone in this universe and that there is life more advanced than us out there. Huge ships begin to descend on he Earth with an even bigger mother ship lurking out in space on the edge of the planet's atmosphere. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) analyses the signal to find a code and upon discovering the Earth is about to be under attack, with the help of his ex-wife, he warns the President Tomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) of the incoming danger and they manage to escape before the alien ships lay waste to Washington D.C. with a giant laser weapon. The army attempt to launch a counter attack, but their weapons cannot penetrate the ship's external shields and the majority of the Black Knights flight squadron are killed except for Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) who evades attack, forces the alien ship following him to crash, and knocks his attacker unconscious. He delivers the unconscious invader to Area 51 where he meets the President and David and along with help from Dr. Okun's (Brent Spiner) research, they beginning plans on ways to save the Earth. But can they manage it?

Extremely detailed drawings there, Jeff. 
The central trio of the film need to be strong enough both on their own, and with one another on screen, and fortunately they are. Will Smith plays the macho, trash-taking, Hiller in true Smith-style. He is cool and everything every man wishes they were. Whilst one could criticise it for being too 'Will Smith' (not an ivalid argument, perhaps), if the main purpose of films is entertainment, then Smith nails it. He is funny, suave, badass, and completely likeable - something that is often missed with macho armed forces characters. Pullman's President is essentially the ideal leader of the United States of America. With authority and an air of calm, he commands his way through unknown threats with visitors from another world. Not only is he smart, he is sacrificial throwing himself into the firing line like a true leader should. Goldblum plays delightful, if not cynical, ex-scientist Levinson. Essentially the lead of the film, he holds his own with gravitas and a brilliant performance, linking all of the different aspects of the plot together. He seamlessly progresses the plot and is hugely entertaining while he does it.

Will Smith is pretty hot.

The only real criticism of Independence Day is its runtime at almost two and half hours with plenty of scenes being dragged out just that little bit too long. Aside from this minor flaw, Independence Day is a great example of the alien invasion genre. Huge, ominous spaceships looming over the once great cities and landmarks of our world, silently mocking their pettiness in comparison. The visually imposing nature of the spacecraft on its own its terrifying, but the combination of it with its seemingly unstoppable strength makes it more than scary; it is any person's worst nightmare. 

Independence Day is a wonderful genre film, combining sci-fi and action like few others have managed. It is unsurprising that many consider it a 'must-see' film.

Best Bit? The air-force have almost all been wiped out and so anyone with any flight experience is recruited to fight the ships, including the president. But with only small window of time to win the fight, an ultimate sacrifice must be made.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 4: A Librarian's Dream

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Aliens, bombs, planetary collisions. But is the end of life as we know it really going to be so obvious? Or is it going to sneak up on us, unannounced and unexplained. This is 1985's The Quiet Earth.

New Zealand scientist Zac (Bruno Lawrence) simply wakes up and goes about his day. One thing he does notice, however, is that no one seems to be doing their jobs - not because they are not working, but because they are simply not there. Soon Zac realises that the world is void of any human life, possibly linked to a project that he was involved in. After declaring himself 'President of the Quiet Earth', he goes on a small rampage, doing whatever he likes, whenever he likes. That is until he meets Joanne (Alison Routledge), another survivor of 'The Effect' and they go on together to search for any other life. Zac stumbles across someone else called Api (Pete Smith), a gun wielding macho man but despite first appearances, he fits in with the trio and they carry on travelling together to try and find some answers.

No caption here... I'll really nail the next one, I swear.

With only three characters in the film you would believe that you could find three fine actors to portray them, even in a country as small as New Zealand. Well, there will not be any Oscars thrown in the direction of Lawrence, Routledge, or Smith any time soon for these roles. With a lack of conviction from all three leads in any dialogue with each other, particularly between Routledge and Smith, a lot  of the emotions they attempt to portray often fall flat. Lawrence's Zac, however, does hold half of the film on his own with strength and power. The first act of the film is simple in many ways. One man finds he is alone in the world and so he goes a little mad. Shooting statues of Jesus, running down empty prams, setting up camp in luxury houses - the things we would all do if we could.

'Don't make me cross, Jesus!'

Despite weak performances, it is clear why The Quiet Earth is a cult film. The first half makes you wonder what you would do if you were in the same situation, the second drives the film with plot and point. There are some genuinely entertaining moments throughout the film such as Zac's speech to cardboard cut-outs of Hitler, The Queen, Nixon, and Pope John Paul II, proclaiming that he now rules the world. The film also does not forget to include the human emotions that are associated with loneliness, but more importantly, the happiness of human contact after an excessive amount of time alone. A truly touching moment involves nothing more than a smile and an extremely sincere hug between Zac and Joanne when they first meet. It is almost enough to make you well up. Slightly ominous writing prevails with excellent glimpses of technical mastery like walking up the walls of a spinning corridor (perhaps Inception was not as original as we thought) and a final scene that is an iconic image on its own.

The Quiet Earth is one of those films that is highly enjoyable despite its less than average performances. It has earned its status as a cult film and is worth watching if only for the stronger first half.

Best Bit? Zac's presidency speech is probably the most entertaining moment in the film, but, actually, his hug with Joanne tugs at a heart string that we often ignore in our social world. Everyone can relate to the notion of wanting company on some scale, and the hug just hits that need more than anything in the film.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 3: Identity Theft

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. We have looked at both nature and mankind's effects on the Earth and how they could cause its destruction, Today's film is a remake of a 1956 film that was originally adapted from a novel, and is considered one of the most successful remakes of all time. This is 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In San Francisco, something peculiar is happening. Weird flowers are blooming around the city that do not seem to be a recorded species. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes an interest in the strange plants, but soon her attention is drawn to the odd behaviour of her boyfriend who is not acting like himself. Soon enough Matthew Bennell  (Donald Sutherland) begins to hear claims from many friends that people close to them are behaving strangely too, including Elizabeth. Together, and with the help of friends, Nancy and Jack (Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum), they begin to try and understand what is happening to their loved ones, despite opposition from Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). One thing becomes clear, if they are not careful, they will soon be joining the unemotional masses that now roam the streets, bursting forth from huge flower buds. 

The really strange thing here is those funky trees. 

A fantastic lead performance from Sutherland, who younger readers will know as President Snow from The Hunger Games franchise. Capturing the paranoia that the film presents perfectly, he strays wonderfully between calm leader, and manic victim. His big hair and moustache add to the crazy look, as well as his long trench coat, but his power play is the strength in his facial expressions. Wide eyed in fear, he strives to protect Adams' Elizabeth. Adams, herself, is a delightful leading lady. The first to be thrust into the world of fearful paranoia, she portrays Elizabeth with the right amount of terror, confusion, but also composure. A strong female character in the face of disaster. Goldblum's Jack is a wonderfully exasperated writer that sees the world around him in a cynical light which provides a neat amount of comic relief, without ever straying from the overall feel of suspense. 

The film is drop dead exciting. 

The achievements of this film lie not just in its performers, but equally in its production. Philip Kaufman's direction builds suspense in the background. A police siren here, a scream there, a person staring soullessly into the distance pretty much everywhere, he knows how to draw the audience and question what they are seeing - what is going on. The minimal score consists of uncomfortable twitches on the violin and juxtaposing silence, jarring beautifully with the piercing, horrible screeching sound that the pod-people manage to produce. W.D. Richter's screenplay, too, is full of captivating dialogue, twist after unpleasant twist, and plenty of surprises (like a dog with a tramps face due to a malfunction with a pod). Together, Kaufman's direction and Richter's writing manage to create a uneasy atmosphere that climaxes in a spine chilling finale that will linger on the memory.  

An alarming and subtle wipe-out of humankind. Entertaining and captivating with more memorable moments than you can shake a stick at. A remake that almost manages to single-handedly remove the negative connotations that come with that word. 

Best Bit? Many will tell you that the ending is up there with Some Like It Hot and The Departed. An ending that you want to tell everyone about because of how strong it was. No spoilers here, though. You will have to go watch it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 2: Earth Egg

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Yesterday we looked at nature destroying the Earth. Today we look at mankind and the things they would do for knowledge. This is 1965's Crack in the World.

Dr Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) and his wife Maggie (Janette Scott) are on the verge of something incredible. They are drilling a hole through the Earth's crust to allow them to harness the vast amount of energy at the Earth's core. They want to use an atomic warhead to break through the last layer to the magma core. However, Dr. Ted Rampion's (Kieron Moore) research shows that the explosion could cause shattering devastation to the Earth, literally. As Sorenson explains, if Rampion's theory is correct, the effect on the Earth's crust will be much like a hammer hitting a window. But Sorenson gets the approval for his missile and goes ahead with the project, with what seems to be excellent results. That is until earthquakes start happening across a particular fault line and causing a crack in the world that could end life as we know it. Can the scientists stop the destruction?

Smashing demonstration Doctor!

There are a lot of words beginning with P that could describe Andrews' Sorenson: persistent, power hungry, peculiar. On their own, none are quite correct, but together they form a reasonable summary of Andrews' portrayal. His thought process, often down the lines of 'How many men get the chance to turn the page of history?', shows his ego, and explains his depressive mood towards the end of the film as his dream shatters. Otherwise, the acting has little to praise. Scott's Maggie seems at first to be a strong female character, describing herself as a scientist to an elevator full of men, but as the film progresses, Scott adds little personality to Maggie that is not influenced by her fondness of Ted or Stephen. There is nothing particularly memorable about any performance given.

This is why crack is bad, kids!

Like When Worlds Collide, Crack in the World has not aged well. The special effects towards the end of the film as the destruction reaches its climax is visually exciting, though not overly convincing. A train being thrown from its tracks is a little too obviously a model train and the scene the precedes the accident is tedious to say the least. As the train heads towards disaster, Maggie and Ted try to warn the driver of the crack by driving alongside the train and yelling. The driver merrily waves back for far too long, like a robot stuck on a waving function. It is simply one example of ridiculous and questionable elements of the film designed to attempt to make the film more alarming with the loss of human life but in completely unrealistic scenarios. The dialogue never really hits any form of stride after the strong opening. Once the disaster is actually under way, most characters become two-dimensional and the leads become dull with the exception of Sorenson, who locks himself away underground to finish his work.

A weak film. As a summary, the plot is simple enough to work, but the there are too many moments of weakness scattered around many elements of the film, from the dialogue, to the acting, to the overly cheesy score underneath lengthy shots of dramatic faces of worried scientists.

Best Bit? The opening of the film. Sorenson demonstrates the effect his weapon will have on the Earth's crust be slamming a hammer through a glass pane, and then burning through a separate pane with a burning poker to calm the concerns of the men in the room.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 1: Planet Pinball

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Our first film, from 1951, is one of the few from the era not based around the extinction of humanity through nuclear war. This is When Worlds Collide.

A star called Bellus is on a collision course with Earth. Orbiting that star is a planet named Zyra and upon confirming the awful truth of the collision course, Dr Hendron (Larry Keating) decides there is only one solution. They must build a ship to fly some members of the human race to Zyra before the destruction of Earth. A rich wheel-chair bound man called Stanton (John Hoyt) puts the money forward for Hendron's plans in return for a space on the ship and so the deal is done and Hendron and Dr Tony Drake (Peter Hanson) begin to plan their species survival. The ship, having only enough room for necessities and forty people or so, is under construction and the workers enter a lottery to see who will be allowed on the ship with the already chosen few including a morally conflicted pilot named David Randall (Richard Derr) who does not believe he has earned a spot on the flight. Bellus passes close to Earth causing natural disasters to happen over the whole Earth and the race to finish the ship is on.

Water a way for New York to go...

Rudolph Maté's disaster film rattles along with a focus on his characters leading up to the end of the world rather than the Earth's destruction. Keating's Hendron is focused on carrying on human kind after Bellus hits Earth, and perfectly so. He is powerful, stern, and overwhelmingly caring at the same time. Next to Hoyt's angry Stanton, he seems like a saint, if not a little obsessive. He is the star of the film. Much like the rest of the film, the acting style from the other performers is a bit dated. Women lacking much personality, men arguing quickly and with little reasoning. Perhaps it is more a script based error, or the 89 minute runtime cutting out important character thought processes, but the film occasionally seems to jump wildly from one conclusion to another. However, there are some charming scenes with wonderful sections of dialogue, nearly all of them involving Keating's arguments with Stanton.

The new Thorpe Park ride is out of this world.

Whilst the film is dated, it never stops being enjoyable. There is a glorious feeling that comes from the merry optimism from a pre-moon landing America. Spaceships can be shot into space off of a roller coaster track and stars will not burn the atmosphere of Earth until very very close. As Bellus becomes close to Earth, the audience are treated to a montage of disasters (mostly pinched from other films) that show the oncoming end off the world and it is the only scene that really shows any destruction or effect of the star's passing, but it does it effectively. Waves ripping through a New York street, fires over an oil field, the normal. And in the closing stages of the film, a more powerful message becomes evident. The men who have not been selected for the flight riot and the question is raised: who decides who lives and dies? How would we, the audience, react? A minor moral underlying to an otherwise straight forward plot.

A nice, if not dated, view of the end of the world at nature's hand. Scientifically dreadful, but enjoyable none-the-less. The short runtime ensures it never drags, even if does sometime make large leaps forward.

Best Bit? The montage of the disasters followed by a the touching rescue of a boy stuck on a roof  in a flood (and the dishing out of supplies to survivors, though they won't survive for long, will they?)

Friday, 11 July 2014

Coming Soon: Apocalypse Week

Some of you may remember Vietnam Week - A week in which I reviewed seven Vietnam war films in seven days. Well I wanted to do it again, so hang on to your hats folks! Monday will mark the beginning of my second set of themed reviews. Vietnam Week, move over. Welcome, Apocalypse Week.

I will be reviewing one film that depicts the end of our world as we know it every day next week. But this time there is another layer. Unlike the Vietnam war, the end of the world has been presented in film since before the 1950s. In order to do a good scope of films, I will be picking one film from every decade from the 1950s onwards.

Any apocalyptic films I have already reviewed will be linked on the main Apocalypse Week page along with the films reviewed next week as they come.

Any suggestions? Recommendations? A particular apocalyptic film from the last 60 years that you feel should be included? Let me know and I will check it out and possible include it.

Enjoy next week! It could be our last.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Ghost Mirror, Ghost Mirror on the Wall

Horror is a constantly slammed genre in the universe of film. Famous for blood, gore, cheap effects, you name it. So why do people still attempt to make horror films? Is it even possible any more to make a good horror film? Today's film will try. This is Oculus.

A young woman, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), wants to clear her little brother Tim's (Brenton Thwaites) name from the murder of their father, Rory (Rory Cochrane), when they were kids. Kaylie is insistent that there is a dark supernatural force attached to the mirror their father had in his office and eleven years later, when Tim is released from the mental institution he has been in, she sets up an experiment to prove that the mirror is evil, her father is innocent of the murder of her mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff), and Tim is innocent of the murder of their father. As the past collides with the present within the house in the form of flashbacks and hallucinations, we see the events surrounding the murders eleven years earlier with a young Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively) struggling with the strange events in the house. But how strong truly is the mirror and Kaylie's plans to expose the truth really work?

No, guys, you have to face the front.

With a huge television star gracing the big screen several times in the upcoming year, there will always be a nagging fear that Karen Gillan, looking much the same as her famous Amy Pond, will make her films seem more like extended episodes of Doctor Who. It is a nagging fear, but a completely ungrounded one. Gillan holds her own with a strong American accent, a darkly entertaining, yet brutal, way of talking about the mirror, and an obsessive personality, completely focused on proving the mirror's evil. Thwaites is a powerful companion too, crossing so brilliantly between fear, bravery, and confusion of his reality. His uncertainty as to what is real is the film's strength in a nutshell; as the protagonist, if he cannot tell what is reality, how are the audience ever expected to. Cochrane and Sackoff also put in solid turns as the parents who are falling under the mirror's evil control. There is something endlessly ominous about loving parents having a terrifyingly strong and quiet presence in the fit of a murderous rampage. 

Does no one in this film know how to use a mirror?

The first real gem of Oculus is the child actors. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are simply incredible. Often occupying the screen alone, the pair do not just fill the space, they control it. They are also giving plenty of chances to prove their acting abilities curtsey of a fantastic script by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan, the latter of which also directed the horror. Oculus' second gem is the ingenuity of the plot. There is nothing overly original about a ghost mirror, or possessive spirits, or even vengeful young adults, and yet Flanagan has come up with something fresh and exciting. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of the ending, forcing the audience to question and make up their own minds on the extent of the mirror's power, or maybe it is the way the past and present dance with each other, darting in and out of rooms, interlinking together to create a fluid and exciting narrative. Either way, Oculus has people talking, arguing, and debating about all aspects of the film from the mirror's powers, to how they as individuals would beat it. A true achievement. 

Flanagan's direction is confident and dark. There is a morbidity about it and yet there is still plenty of lighter entertainment too. Most successfully though, it causes the audience to question what they see. This is not one of those horrors that just wants to shock its viewers with cheap scares, it wants to engage them, make them uncomfortable, and creep them out. Oculus has weight that a lot of modern horrors lack and has thrown Flanagan into the horror spotlight. A frightful joy. 

Best Bit? Kaylie and Tim are outside the house looking in at themselves preparing to kill themselves with one of Kaylie's self-timed 'precautions'. Are they outside or inside? Is the mirror trying to draw them back in or keep them exactly where they are - at death's door? The moment sums up how the mirror plays with the mind and leaves the audience with an unsolvable dilemma.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Sex, Drugs, Neon Colours

Female Disney stars often end up being the centre of a media circus due to some controversial act, photo, or video that shows them as more than a slave of the House of Mouse. Most notably is probably Miley Cyrus. But let's not forget Vanessa Hudgens nude photo scandals, or Selena Gomez' relationship with Justin Bieber. But the best way to shut the critics up? Embrace your life as a performer just as Miley Cyrus did with her music, or Hudgens and Gomez did with today's film. This is Spring Breakers.

Four college girls have a simple dream: to go on Spring Break. Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) want to party in Florida with all of the other students but even with gambling and savings, they just cannot find the money to go. That is until three of the girls come up with a plan to make some extra dough by robbing a local restaurant. But when there is a will, there is a way, and the girls head of to the sunshine state to party hard, have sex, take drugs, and party harder. They want to discover themselves and have a spiritual revolution, if the trouble they get into along the way does not stop them, or if a strangely helpful rapper/drug dealer named Alien (James Franco) does not get them in more.

If she gets a paper cut, that would blow.

Spring Breakers is a neon coloured acid trip into the wasted youth of America. The four girls are little more than empty shells of characters spurred into a dark world filled with bright colours and drugs. Franco's Alien is a grotesque figure that somehow manages to charm his way into being likeable despite silver grills on all his teeth and guns on all his walls. Gomez's Faith is probably the most three-dimensional of the college girls, struggling with her own faith and how all this partying will affect her spiritually. She also acts as some form of repetitive narrator whispering down the phone about finding herself whilst the same bright, almost hallucinogenic shots of the girls partying flash over the screen for the first 40 minutes of the film.

After the partying the girls needed arrest. 

Aesthetically and artistically, the film is gorgeous. Like a drug induced journey into the mind of any American college student, Spring Breakers combines light with dark in both explicit and subtle ways. The highs of drugs and drink combined with the violence and harassment that comes with the lows of the party lifestyle. Pink balaclava clad women in bikinis with guns on a electric yellow pontoon are but one of the powerful eye catching colour combinations that director Harmony Korine works with in the film. It is just a pity he did not spend as much time building a better narrative for his films. While it is all very pretty to watch, the end result is unsatisfying. How many times in 90 minutes can James Franco drone 'Spring Break Forever' underneath clips of naked women that are seemingly taken from a Girls Gone Wild video from the 90's. Some may argue that there is a deeper meaning to all of this; that the emptiness is representative of the empty, superficial nature of today's youth. But this is no Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a visually stunning piece of cinema that lacks soul.

The phrase 'diamond studded turd' springs to mind when regarding Spring Breakers, but that is possibly too harsh. The film is entertaining enough to not feel like a waste of time, but really, with all the repeated shots and mindless nudity, it feels like the whole thing could be shortened to a powerful short film, rather than feature length neon art.

Best Bit? Well for some it will undoubtedly be the gratuitous nudity but there is something extremely, and darkly, enjoyable about the film's finale.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Out Of the Oscar Coma: Short Reviews

Every year after rocketing through all the films I can on the Oscar ballot, I slip into an 'Oscar Coma'. I avoid too many films to catch up with some television instead. This means that very little happens on this blog. But do not think I have been sitting by doing nothing. To prove that, have some small reviews to keep you all going.


The latest Disney animation about two princesses, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa has magical abilities that allow her to conjure ice and snow. On the day of her coronation, Anna gets engaged to Hans (Santino Fontana), a man she has only just met, and Elsa cannot hide her powers any more. She is run out of her kingdom by her own people and hides away in a castle of ice. With the help of ice loving Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven, Anna goes in search of her sister. There's also a snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad) and some trolls who have raised Kristoff.

Whilst the animation and concepts within the film are incredible, the rest just is not quite there. There are plenty of minor issues that could easily be solved but instead leave questions unanswered. With songs thrown in with little reasoning - the trolls tell us that Kristoff is a fixer upper, a pointless song - and with a plot that rattles by with the speed of a cheetah, the film cannot afford to waste time with such meaningless songs. It is not that the songs lack quality, they lack value. Similarly, the rest of the film is enjoyable but entirely superficial. It ticks all the boxes on the mainstream check list - attractive protagonists, catchy songs, visually engaging animation, silly jokes - but it is all surface level. With minimal plot, the most character development happens in one song: Do You Want To Build A Snowman. After this, what could have been bold statements by Disney about sisterly love, anxiety, being who you are, and the dangers of judging others fall away into the distance and become dots on the horizon. But it is fine because the trolls are adorable, right?

Catchy, enjoyable, but lacking in any real depth. So much potential in the first twenty minutes. Such a small outcome.

Best Bit? Do You Want To Be A Snowman is one of the most moving openings to a film in a long time. Two entire characters summed up in a couple of minutes.

The LEGO Movie

Another big animation, this time coming from Warner Brothers and is completely made from LEGO. Not stop motion, mind - computer animation of LEGO. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a perfectly average LEGO man when he gets mistaken for the most extraordinary person alive. He gets roped into a society of 'Master Builders', the LEGO characters who can build away from instructions. These people include Batman (Will Arnett), Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and the girl who discovers Emmet, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). However, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the evil tyrant that rules the LEGO world, forbids the making of LEGO structures without instructions and has evil plans to solidify his universe with 'Kragle'. Emmet, as the 'Special' must use his abilities to stop him. Unfortunately, he does not have those abilities.

The LEGO Movie created a stir prior to its release with its hilarious trailers featuring every character under the sun. It does not disappoint. Scattered with laugh out loud moments but between, the chuckling will not rest. Highly inventive, literally using one of the world's most popular playtime toys as the driving force of a whole plot. There is no way you will not find yourself wanting to dig out your old LEGO box when the credits roll. Maybe it is a huge advertisement, but it never stops being entertaining for the entire family. Feel no shame watching it without kids, this film is made for everyone. And guaranteed you will not be able to get Everything is Awesome out of your head for weeks.

A strangely philosophical escape from reality into a childish sense of joy. Hilarious and gloriously entertaining.

Best Bit? The meeting of the Master Builders in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Hilariously constructed with cameos from your favourite characters and voice actors alike.

The Act Of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar nominated documentary asks government protected Indonesian killers who committed mass murders 50 years ago to reconstruct their killings in any film genre they want. This includes gangster films, art films, and musical numbers. The result is a brutal truth exposing the atrocities that happened decades ago in a country that flies relatively low on the Western World's radar. Do not be mistaken by the pastel colours on the poster. It is far more  disturbing than that, a point which the trailer makes very clear.

This is one of the finest documentaries in years. Challenging, powerful, shocking, and hard to watch. Anwar, the killer we follow, is a horribly likeable character, dancing on rooftops whilst describing the brutal ways he tortured and murdered people. Perhaps more disturbing is the idea of him being hailed as a national hero for his 'crimes'. As he says himself, crimes are decided by the winners and he is a winner. What The Act Of Killing does is open the viewers' eyes to the darkness in the world, and the horrors of seeing your own dark past in front of you.

Hard hitting and eye-opening. A masterpiece.

Best Bit? Is there a best bit in something made to expose darkness? There's certainly something heartbreaking about the end. 

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Evil Nuns

What happens when you put M and Alan Partridge on a journey into the past? Well who knows, but this is as close as we will get for now. This is Philomena.

Based on a true story of a disgraced politician, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who, when he gets the sack, looks back at doing some journalism work. What he stumbles across is a human interests piece in the form of Philomena (Judie Dench), a little old Irish lady, who had her child taken from her by the nuns that were her guardians. The article becomes a thrilling thought to Martin. Evil nuns, a searching mother, a lost child, a tale spanning 50 years. It has everything needed for a successful story and so the pair set off, first to Ireland and then on to America to find the lost Anthony. But the tale is not simple, having to fight against dead ends and unhelpful sources, but can the two find what they are after - a reunion between mother and son?

'Bond, you look different'

What happens when you combine two of Britain's finest talents in a film together? Philomena, and it is splendid. Steve Coogan, who also wrote the film with Jeff Hope, does a wonderful job portraying Sixsmith as a cynical, world-weary fellow who just wants his story. Well, until half way into the film when we see his human side develop a little bit more. And Dame Judie Dench, the faultless Judie Dench (we will forget Chronicles of Riddick) as the delightful, yet somewhat grating, Philomena. But it is neither part is a solo act; this whole film is about the relationship of the two characters. Philomena, a simple woman with a lot of faith. Martin, a master with words that likes to investigated the complex. The two clash and collide but it makes for a seriously entertaining film. Laughs are often constructed by Sixsmith's annoyance of everything around him, tears are often wrenched by Philomena tugging on your heartstrings. It is a two person show, and by gosh, do they show. 

What a chairful couple.

A truly wonderful script by Coogan and Hope, brought to life masterfully by Stephen Frears. But it is the screenplay that stands out. As previously stated, this is a film about relationships, which are built on communication. From opening to close, there are lines that should be quoted again and again. Some notable moments are often about faith. The question of 'do you believe in God' gets thrown in there, to which Martin rambles for a while and finishes stating that there is no easy answer, then asks Philomena who gives a simple yes. And suddenly the characters are so clear in such a simple conversation, which is the mastery of writing for the screen. A brilliant achievement, and nominated around the board in recognition.  

Listed as a comedy, but still very much a tale told for the heart. It is exceedingly funny, but with enough sincerity that it never loses its power as a strong story.

Best Bit? The pair are in an airport discussing their books. Philomena begins to explain her book. I can guarantee that every audience goer will be able to identify with Martin's face as she goes on about horses. Realistic and hilarious. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

Old People

The road trip. Ram a load of young college kids into a VW van and you have a film. The destination does not matter. The sex and drinking do. Now what if you remove young college kids and replace them with old people. Keep the sex talk and the drinking. What do you get? This is Nebraska.

An ageing alcoholic by the name of Woody (Bruce Dern) gets a letter saying he has won $1million. Naturally, he wants to set straight out to claim his winnings so he begins to walk to Nebraska. From Montana. That's pretty far for a 77 year old. His sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb) try to convince him that is all a scam, but Woody is stubborn and eventually David agrees to take him. After hitting some troubles on route, they stay with some family in Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up, and Woody begins to explore his old town. When he reveals that he has won some money, he becomes a local celebrity and everyone wants to be his friend, or get some money out of him. Cue a lot of bar scenes and a lot of swearing from an old lady, this is the road trip of the future featuring heroes from the past.

Bruce Dern, at 77 years of age, is getting the leading man acclaim that he well and truly deserves. Woody is an incredibly realised performance who is entirely loveable and at the same time it is impossible to not fully identify with Forte's David and his annoyance at his father. Speaking of Forte, a man known for his comedy work, puts in a fantastic turn here. Further proof that comedy actors should not be limited as such. Whilst the film is absolutely hilarious, it is the reality of the relationship primarily between David and Woody that makes the film so honestly touching. There is a true sense of family between all the leads and a clear, real love for Woody from Squibb's Kate. At first she comes across as a cynical, grumpy old lady, but as the narrative progresses, we see what she has to deal with on a daily basis with Woody and suddenly you realise how much she truly loves him. It is the most honest representation of ageing love since Amour

She's just a little old lady... oh.
With an absolutely exceptional script by Bob Nelson, Nebraska rattles along in black and white doing something extremely risky in mainstream cinema. It shows people as they are. It does not cast these gloriously attractive actors to play us normal people. And by shooting the film in black and white, an overwhelming sense of melancholy settles over the film, despite it being so funny. Alexander Payne's direction has a clear sense of purpose, filling the film with long shots of a colourless Nebraska farmland with small silhouettes of his characters looking out over the land. Time is precious, detail is important, but most of all, keeping good relationships will get you far in this world.

A truly spectacular achievement in cinema. Absolutely beautiful to watch and gloriously meaningful. Plus, ridiculously funny and also extremely touching. Payne's newest masterpiece has it all and it is one you could watch again and again.

Best Bit? Perhaps it fits quite well with the dampened happiness of the film but the family take a trip to the cemetery to see where Woody's family are buried. Kate, who clearly did not get on with them all too well, discusses each grave in turn that would have the deceased rolling under her feet. 

Everyone Has AIDS

This awards season has brought a lot of intimate, personal stories, and many of them from history. Today we dive back only a few decades to a story that speaks of something extremely important. But how well does it do it? This is Dallas Buyers Club.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) is just your average rodeo bull riding electrician. The kind of guy that hires hookers to bang him behind the gates of the bull ring after he has done his dealings as a bookie, but before he goes to drink and snort cocaine with his friends. The normal. One day, however, that all changes when he is diagnosed as HIV positive - the disease of 'faggots' - saying he only has thirty days to live, and so naturally his homophobic friends abandon him. The doctors cannot give him AZT, the medicine he really wants as it is only in the trial stages, so he finds a way around the system after meeting a Mexican doctor, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne). Teaming up with transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron begins to smuggle in drugs to help himself, but eventually realises he is not the only one who needs help. He sets up a system for other AIDS suffers, despite arguments from Dr. Sevard (David O'Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and calls it the Dallas Buyers Club.

The title 'Hugs and Drugs' did not test well with audiences.

McConaughey, an actor whose name, when attached to a movie, meant you should probably avoid whatever the project was. Here he is now with an Academy Award nomination. (He's also in the nominated The Wolf of Wall Street.) Why? Because he is fantastic. As Ron, McConaughey shows that there is a lot of power in his performance. Unlike some recent performances that leave subtlety in the past and prefer the explicit, McConaughey understands Ron and all he is feeling, from the desperation for suitable medicine, to the need to help others, to the fear of death, McConaughey gets it right. But the real stand out is Leto. As transsexual Rayon, Leto is completely unrecognisable. He is completely absorbed in his role and sucks the audience in too. A loving, and loveable character, with the social skills that Ron fails to possess in the gay community, Leto's Reyon is easily one of the finest performances of the year. He is very similar to the famous Angel, from the musical Rent. The two leads hold the film, their supporting cast to little to add much. Fortunately, the pair at the front need little help.

That security man is missing the point.

A cleverly constructed tale of the good and bad sides of humanity. The darkness that is how much can be achieved when desperation is the driving force, but also the hope that comes with that. One man finds a solution for his problem and unlike the money-centric companies that control the medicine, he tries to make a difference. With some of the best editing of the year, the film never feels like the two hour runtime that it is and along with such an engaging script and fantastic direction from Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club is an important story of struggling with the American healthcare system. It is, as some other critics have stated, possibly being told too late to pack the punch it could have 20 years ago, but it is still an inspirational tale. 

A story that has a lot of everything. Some happy bits, some sad bits, some bits that will make you angry. It is a tale that shows the dangers of greed and hate and the benefits of caring for others. 

Best Bit? Ron dons a priest outfit as he smuggles drugs across the border from Mexico to the USA. He's stopped. Perhaps it is our sympathetic relationship with Ron, but c'mon. Who stops a priest?

(Note: I've seen claims that the only reason McConaughey is getting attention is because he lost a lot of weight. I've not spoken about his weight loss because, whilst it advances his character, he is truly talented too.)

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Sci-fi. Aliens, robots, space. All that cool stuff, right? Well what about love in a not too distance future? Companies that write love letters? Cyber sex? This is Her.

In the not-too-distant future, there is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) , a lonely love letter writer, avoiding signing his divorce papers. He goes home at night, plays video games, and has, very strange, phone sex. His friend Amy (Amy Adams) tries to get him out, to set him up with her friends, and force him out of his slump. But nothing works until Theodore installs a new operating system on his computer, an artificial intelligence that adapts and evolves as it learns. The OS calls herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and she form a bond with Theodore. Together they organise his life, write his letters, and begin to date. Weird right? Can it work out or will it crash and burn?

'I love Lamp'

Much in the same way Moon was a one man show, Her is held entirely by Phoenix.While Johansson's voice work is delightful, with her soft and subtle tones, picking up on every minor nuance of emotion, it is Phoenix who makes the film special. There is a real loneliness in his performance, the sense of true sadness until Samantha comes into his life. But the change from sadness to happiness is not a quick one. Covering a whole spectrum from cynicism to joy to carelessness, Theodore is undoubtedly a fully developed character from start to finish. Adams' Amy is her best role of the past year (yes, better than American Hustle) as she accompanies Theodore on his journey into love and develops something similar with her own Operating System. She plays an important role in the development of Samantha and Theodore's relationship, be it encouraging it, or being questioned by Samantha.

Secretly, who hasn't wanted to tuck their partner in their pocket?

There is something wonderfully unique and - possibly brutally - truthful about Her. In the world we live in today, technology is being programmed to be almost human. Of course, it is not the first time that artificial intelligence, and relationships with technology, have been the focus of the big screen, but it is the first time it has seemed so believable. Spike Jonze has created something that, with the invention of things like Siri, has a high possibility of happening. However, whilst the first two thirds of Her are something highly unique, the final chapter seems a bit too familiar. The focus in the final third, it has been speculated, should be heavily on Theodore's ending in the tale, which it looks like Jonze intended, but something is missing; something new to finish off the well known story that Her becomes towards the end.

All in all, a romantic sci-fi with hints of drama and comedy, on paper, sounds like the strangest thing to happen to cinema in a long while. And it is, in some respects, but it says something powerful about mankind's dependency on technology, and that message should be listened to.

Best Bit? As we see the bond between Samantha and Theodore develop they play a game where he closes his eyes and she gives him instructions. His childlike happiness is so contagious that you will not be able to stop yourself smiling along.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Django In Chains

History is a wonderful beginning step for film making. There is undoubtedly something truly exciting about experiencing the past in a visual medium, happy or sad. The latter emotion is definitely more prominent in many historical films, like today's film. This is 12 Years a Slave.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man, a talented violin player, and a loving father and husband. He lives a simple life until, one day, he is kidnapped after two men offer him a job playing violin. From his kidnapping, he is sold into slavery (by a horrible Paul Giamatti) to the gentle and respectable Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But things go from bad to worse when sadistic rancher Tibeats (Paul Dano) starts to have it out for Northup, now called Platt, leaving Ford no choice but to sell him on again, despite the bond they have formed. This time Solomon ends up with brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and befriends Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a young slave girl hated by Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson) and sexually abused by Epps. Based on Northup's own memoirs, 12 Years a Slave is an unrelenting and horribly realistic portrayal of slavery.

Swag: noun - The above photo.

Ejiofor, who reportedly originally turned the role down, is on top form in 12 Years a Slave. His portrayal of a man who has his life destroyed so completely and so quickly is devastating and yet always hopeful. From his first signs of resistance - I don't want to survive. I want to live - all the way through his torturous ordeal in slavery, the viewer is forced to remain as strong as Solomon. Northup only breaks occasionally, normally trying to make the best of his surroundings, but when the emotions rise, Ejiofor's ability truly shines through. A master of both subtlety and the explicit. Matching him is the glorious Nyong'o. As Patsy, she shows she capable of an incredible range of performance, especially for her feature film debut. Unlike the bigger, more explicit characters like Fassbender's Epps, Dano's Tibeats, or even Ejiofor's Northup, Patsy is introduced as a quiet reserved girl around the greatest horrors in the world - rape, violence, even being disallowed to clean. Nyong's subtle pain, inner sorrow, and plain emptiness is heart wrenching, to say the least. Also of note is Fassbender's Epps. A truly horrific man that forces his slaves to dance for him and he takes what he wants, primarily Patsy. He holds nothing back, giving a true punch with his performance, sometimes literally.

Epps just loved to show off his guns...

Steve McQueen, of Shame and Hunger fame, is not known for his easy viewing. His films say something, and it is not nice. Sexual addiction, starvation, and now, slavery. Teaming up with John Ridley, McQueen brings something painfully real to the big screen. Northup's ordeal was a historical event and, even if details have been changed, that realism is constantly reminded you that this actually happened. McQueen brings it to life brutally, emphasising moments that are designed to make us, the viewer, uncomfortable. A horribly extended hanging scene whilst the normal ranch life continues in the background, a whipping scene where the camera does not cut for around four minutes, a stunned silence after a vase is thrown directly into a slave's face. These moments are engineered by McQueen and his team to highlight the horrible nature of human kind. It is not trying to guilt trip white Americans, it is not placing blame, it is simply demonstrating monsters as they are. It is story telling in its purest form: powerful and completely unforgiving.

A moving piece of cinema that tells the tale of hope and humanity. The way Steve McQueen shows the true horror of the slave trade is forceful but unbiased. It is simply truthful story telling. One of 2013's finest achievements in film.

Best Bit? Certainly the most memorable moments are those that force discomfort in the viewer. The whipping, the hanging. Such power and next to no dialogue needed.